Blind Bargains

Guest Blog: Apple Design for Most of Us

The following is a guest opinion post from Alex Hall. We thank him for sending in the below article.

Earlier this week, I saw a
from Joe regarding Apple, usability, iPhone X, etc. Rather than engage over Twitter, I thought I'd write an article in response. Twitter may have recently doubled its character limit, but it is still quite a limited forum for long-form thoughts and discussions.

First, here is the text of both tweets. I've put it into a single paragraph for convenience.

I’m tired of Apple, and their loyalist brethren, telling me I’m a Luddite for not excepting change. Touch Bar, headphone jack home button. And all the changes have been added to pad apples production cost. Not because the change is benefiting the user.

The gist of Joe's opinion seems to be that Apple is making devices less usable, introducing features that aren't necessary and that serve mostly to make money. Remove the headphone jack, and suddenly, those AirPods are way more appealing. Furthermore, Apple doesn't make devices as usable as they used to (the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar and the missing home button on iPhone X being two prime examples).

My basic point boils down to this. The way I see things, Apple isn't interested in making devices that are the best to use for every single customer. Rather, they make devices that are best to use for the majority, then they try to make that design accessible to the rest. A prime example is the iPhone. Physical buttons are objectively easier to use by visually impaired people than flat, featureless touch surfaces, as evidenced by every blind person who has cursed their iPhone while trying to use an automated menu while on a call. But Apple didn't include a physical keypad around which was worked a touch screen because that wasn't the vision they had for the majority of their users. Instead, they added VoiceOver, to make the touch screen as accessible as possible to those who would be less able to use an iPhone. Other accessibility efforts have emerged since, from VoiceOver improvements to low vision and touch accommodations and beyond. However, Apple didn't set out to make a phone that was optimized for the deaf, or blind, or paralyzed, they made the phone they thought the world wanted, then made that design as accessible as they could.

The Touch Bar is a more recent example, and as a user of a MacBook equipped with such a bar, I can speak from personal experience. For blind users, the bar is a poor replacement for physical keys in many situations. It has some advantages, such as sliders for fine-grained control, or offering buttons at one's fingertips instead of the user having to remember keystrokes. But there are plenty of times I miss physical keys, and that's just in macOS; running Windows on this computer is even more of a challenge. Yet, for sighted users, the concept makes a lot of sense. A strip of seldom-used keys is replaced by a touch screen, letting developers put whatever they want on there. Sliders, emoji, typing suggestions, oft-used commands, macros, the list goes on. Is it the best for blind users? No. Is it the best for a certain kind of power user? No. For touch typists who rarely even look down at their hands? No. But for the majority of users, the idea makes sense. Apple then added great VoiceOver support to the Touch Bar, made the function key with numbers emulate f-keys, and took other steps to help blind users get the most from the bar. Those efforts, combined with key remapping in VMWare (which I use to run Windows) mean that my Touch Bar is fully accessible. To Joe's point, no, it's not as efficient or usable, and I'll be the first to admit that. I think about him saying that every time I have to tap the escape key, then double tap it to activate it. What I'm getting at is that Apple never intended this MacBook to be made for my specific needs or what I would find to be most usable. They made it for the masses, then made it so I could use it if I chose to.

There's also Apple's vision to consider. I'm not saying this vision is right, or even preferable, but the fact is, it's there. Apple has the vision, and they have the talent and the hardware and the developers and the money. Apple will follow their vision, and if the market hates it enough to not buy it, they'll adjust. But much of the time, the market is on board once they get ahold of the new device/design. I'm thinking of the iPhone here. The chief designer of the iPhone line has
said that the ultimate goal for iPhone is a single slab of glass.
No holes, no buttons, no nothing, just a glass-encased device driven entirely by voice, touch, and wireless. That vision is the goal, and iPhone X is the first step toward it. Is having no home button better or worse than having one? Depends, but the sighted reviewers I've read seem to not care about its removal at all. Will blind users? Yes, of course, but I've not heard much negativity toward the idea even from that group. Admittedly, though, the intersection of blind people I know/read, and the population that has the new iPhone, is very small, so time will tell on that point. Still, Apple did its best to make the new design accessible, with tactile feedback as the user's finger moves indicating where to start, and when to stop, moving. Is the new model the best for every user? No, but that's never been Apple's way. They do what they think is best, and then make it as usable as is practical.

This may also involve a shift in usage patterns. I've had my own iPad now for only a day or so, but I find myself rarely pressing the home button. Instead, I bring up the dock, and find the app I want there. Between apps I've placed there, and suggested apps, I almost never have to go to the home screen. A two-finger swipe from the bottom edge feels completely natural to me, after very little use; I don't doubt that many iPhone X users will experience something similar. They may not miss the home button because the way they interact with the device has changed. Even if they use the home command a lot, it could be a quick adaptation that seems quite normal after relatively little adjustment.

Joe's other point was that much of the design changes are to make money. First off, I agree. Since Apple is still a publicly traded company, it has to make money. The job of any CEO is, ultimately, to turn a profit with his or her business. Apple has always been expensive, and iPhone X is no different. But it's also no different from other Apple firsts. The company seems to do this quite often: make a new product category, or a radical redesign of an existing one, and charge more than expected. Then, as that new thing evolves and matures, the price will stabilize. MacBooks weren't always $999, and Minis weren't always $499. When prices do remain the same, the specs generally get better. See iOS device storage changes, or the bump in MacBook base model storage, or the increasing power of Apple Watch, for more instances of better value for the same cost.

Yes, iPhone X is super expensive. But that's normal for a new product like this. Apple has never gone bezel-less, never used Face ID sensors, never not had a home button, and never, to my knowledge, used a new alloy of stainless steel in any iPhone. Besides, they didn't drop all other options; they still offer the SE, 6s, 7, and the all-new 8, which was unveiled right next to the X. Eventually, I don't doubt the X form factor will be the only one around, but that's very likely years away. For now, everyone has options, and with the 8, users aren't even giving up performance or storage if they want the classic iPhone style.

As someone who does occasional device training, I know exactly where Joe is coming from when he talks about the difficulty of training someone on a gesture-centric device like iPhone X. Believe me, I had to suffer through the iOS 11 mail rotor bugs with someone who'd only just started to grasp using mail, and I've had to talk people through enough broken websites or random screen reader failures to know that pain all too well. If someone won't do well with no "get me outta here" button, though, they can pick up an older iPhone, or an 8. There are still options, and those who don't want to pay the early adopter/beta tester tax don't have to.

To sum up, I think Joe's points are that Apple is making changes just to make them, and that making new interfaces usable doesn't mean they're efficient to use. I'd say that they have to keep changing things, or they don't make as much money, and making money is why any for-profit exists. Besides, remember all the people saying how boring the old phone design was, when it didn't change in three years? As to usability, being a Touch Bar user, I absolutely agree. But what I've come to think is that Apple makes products for the majority, and in line with what they see as the future. Then, they make those as usable as they can. Sometimes, that's an ultra-efficient experience, like the actions rotor or braille screen input. Sometimes, it's less than great, like the Touch Bar. But just as visually impaired people don't always get the best experience, neither do sighted people. Is everyone happy with the notch in iPhone X, or the fact that MacBook Airs still lack retina displays? Not at all. Taking the good with the bad is part of owning any product, though, whether one is sighted or blind.

I'm not trying to change anyone's mind or start an argument. I just wanted to offer my own thoughts on this, providing some possible rationality for what I took to be somewhat undeserved criticism of Apple. I'm not saying, and will never say, that Apple is perfect or that everyone should use their products. I've tried to talk people into going with Apple, but just as often, I've told them Windows, or Android, or Roku would be their best choice. I've never suggested someone buy an Airport router, and I don't go out and buy the latest shinies just because they exist. I want to sometimes, but I don't. I'm also happy to criticize Apple when they deserve it, such as their not including USB-C adapters with the 2016 or 2017 MacBook Pro, or the release of past iOS versions with important accessibility bugs not yet fixed. I'm not a fanboy (at least I hope I'm not) despite how my Twitter feed may slant. But I wanted to respond to these tweets, so there we go. I know plenty of people will probably disagree, and that's great. These are important discussions to have, especially as we're in the early days of what is likely to be a new iPhone paradigm. Just remember that Apple is a business, and not one whose aim is to produce accessibility-specific technology.

Category: Articles
Displaying 2 comments.
Bargain Hound Sunday, 19-Nov-2017 8:25 PM ET:

Thank you, Alex and Joe, for such intriguing Apple opinions. Re the comments concerning the idea that changes to Apple products were made to pad Apple's production costs, not for users' benefit. How many times have sighted people grumbled about changes to products generally, since consumerism began? The answer is: Lots of times! A company's number one concern is their bottom line, to stay in business and, to do this, money must be made. If I go to my local bakery and I say I want pumpkin-orange pie and they say they don't make that, which I'm glad of, by the way, ha ha, they will not accede to the individual consumer's wishes just because the person wants that particular flavor, ugh! The bakery would probably correctly, I hope, lol, assume that not very many people would even think of such a combination, let alone want it. Apple makes products for the sighted and it was decided that accessibility would be included out of the box but that is not Apple's reason for being. Therefore, the needs of the blind and low-vision populations will never be the main road on Apple's road map. I would say there will always be ways around changes to make the UI accessible but Apple will never make a blindness-oriented anything. Even blindness-specific tech companies, such as HIMS and Humanware, must create software and hardware to please the majority of the people they serve. They listen to consumer demand but they must ultimately make choices. Sometimes it's years before a dearly sought-after app or adjustment is made to these products. The only way in any market for an individual to get an exact match for a product is to self-create and then keep tweaking it as needed. Beth

AA Monday, 20-Nov-2017 02:39 AM ET:

I agree. Apple should think about blind people too. I feel bad that Apple forget blind people. I hope Apple see or read everything here. Whoever please help us send this suggestion to Apple. My message to Apple, please think about blind people before you make any change.

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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