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Smartphone Accessibility 201: Colors, Contrast, and Magnification, Oh My!

Kara VanRoekel 06/14/18

This is article two of a series taking you through mobile accessibility basics for Android and iPhone to help get you ready to conduct an accessibility assessment on the mobile device of your choice. Previously, we introduced TalkBack and VoiceOver screen reader software. Next, we’ll cover the basics of switch controls, followed by a testing method for mobile for each popular operating system.

Screen readers might be the best-known aspect of mobile accessibility, but they’re not the only game in town. Both Android and iOS offer a number of features for folks with low vision or other visual disorders who want to be able to interact with a visual interface. These aren’t all of the low vision settings on either platform by any means, but they are some of the more complicated and, I think, interesting ones.

Finding the settings

On the iPhone, these features can be found under Settings > General > Accessibility.

screenshot of iOS settings, General screenscreenshot of iOS settings, General, Accessibility screen

On the Android, depending on the device and Android version, they can be found under Settings > Accessibility > Vision (Samsung Galaxy S7, Android 7.0) or Settings > Accessibility (Nexus 7, Android 6.0.1).

screenshot of Android Settings screen showing Accessibility as an optionscreenshot of Android Accessibility screen showing all the categories to customize the user experience

Android 7.0

screenshot of Android 6.0.1 Settings screen showing Accessibility as an option near the bottom of the screen screenshot of Android 6.0.1 Accessibility settings, displaying all the customization available for the user

Android 6.0.1

On the iPhone

Magnification Tools

The iPhone has a lot of options for those who struggle with the default display and text sizes. Along with standard low vision supports (like larger text sizes) are features that deserve a bit more explanation.

The Magnifier is a really cool feature that allows you to use the camera as a magnifying glass. Once this option has been enabled, you can triple-click the home button from anywhere and at in order to launch the magnifier.

The Zoom feature has a lot of different options and a lot of flexibility. By default, a quick double-tap with three fingers will zoom in the whole screen. Double-tap and hold that second tap, then drag your fingers up and down in the screen to fine-tune exactly how zoomed in you want to be. Once you’ve zoomed in, you can use three fingers to pan around and explore the screen.

screenshot of the Simply Accessible homepage zoomed in to show just a few words

But wait, there’s more! Triple-tap with three fingers to display the Zoom controller. There are several ways to work with the controller:

screenshot of the Simply Accessible homepage with the mobile Zoom controller revealed with several options

“Choose Region” allows you to decide if you want to stick with the default full screen zoom, or if you want to try something called “Window Zoom”. If you choose Window Zoom, a magnifying lens (which you can resize to your liking) is displayed on the screen, which magnifies the display as you drag it around under the lens.

Screenshot of Simply Accessible homepage with the Zoom controller enabled, revealing two choices: Full Screen Zoom and Window Zoom, with Window Zoom selectedthe resulting effect of Window Zoom, showing a container that has zoomed in content surrounded by regular sized text

The “Choose Filter” option lets you decide if you want to see a color inverted, greyscale, greyscale inverted, or low light version of the screen when you zoom in. This can be applied to either the full screen zoom, or the window zoom. I think that the effects look especially interesting when applied to the window zoom, but some people might find them to be overall more usable when applied to the full screen zoom.

The menu for selecting various color options: None (selected), Inverted, Grayscale, Grayscale inverted, Low light Using the Window Zoom, the frame shows all the colors inverted on the Simply Accessible homepage, zoomed in

Using the Window Zoom, the frame shows all the colors in Grayscale on the Simply Accessible homepage, zoomed in

Using the Window Zoom, the frame shows all the colors in Grayscale but inverted on the Simply Accessible homepage, zoomed in Using the Window Zoom, the frame shows all the colors with a Low Light filter and very low contrast on the Simply Accessible homepage, zoomed in

All of the Zoom options are a lot of fun to play with, and I highly encourage you to try out all of the different combinations.

Color contrast and color adjustment

In the rather ambiguously named “Display Accommodations” section of the Accessibility Settings, you can find all of the different color settings that iOS offers.

screenshot of the iOS Display Accommodations, with Invert Colors, Color Filters, and Reduce White Point screenshot of the iOS Invert Colors screen, with Smart Invert and Classic Invert options

There are two different options for color inversion; classic invert and smart invert.

Classic invert is the old “invert colors” feature with a new name and does exactly what you would expect. It inverts all of the colors on the display for everything.

Smart invert, on the other hand, only inverts the UI, which means that things like graphics, app icons, and images aren’t inverted. So, while the Home screen isn’t changed under smart invert, the dock and other parts of the UI will be inverted, and apps that already have a dark UI (like the clock) won’t get changed. It is actually pretty clever how the smart invert is able to tell the difference between images and everything else and preserve the image in its original form while inverting the rest of the screen. (Of course, it still does get things wrong from time to time; it isn’t perfect yet.)

screenshot of all the iOS icons on the home screen with colors inverted screenshot of the Simply Accessible homepage with colors inverted

You can also choose to activate a series of color filters designed to maximize the display for people who have various types of color blindness. These filters make it easier to read colored text and differentiate icons.

screenshot of the Color Filters screen with Grayscale, Red/Green filter, Green/Red filter, and more as options to help with color deficiency screenshot of the Simply Accessible homepage with a specific scheme enabled to account for different color deficiency needs

Users with brightness sensitivity can use Reduce White Point to reduce the intensity of bright colors and fine-tune the percentage of the intensity reduction.

On an Android (7.0 and 6.0.1)

Magnification tools

Android 7.0 is very similar to the iPhone in the kind of magnification options that it offers.

Once magnification gestures have been enabled, you can triple-tap with a single finger to zoom in and out of the screen. Once the screen has been zoomed, a pinch gesture can be used to fine-tune the desired amount of zoom, and then you can drag multiple fingers across the zoomed-in screen (this gesture works equally well with two or three fingers) to pan around the screen.

If you only need temporary magnification, a triple tap and hold will zoom in the screen, and you can pan around the screen by dragging your finger around. As soon as you lift your finger, the magnification goes away again.

In addition to the standard magnification gestures, the Samsung running Android 7.0 also has a magnification window, which is much like the Window Zoom option on the iPhone. However, the Android version is slightly less robust in that it does not allow the user to resize their magnifying lens.

That’s all on Android 7.0. Android 6.0.1, on the other hand, only offers the full screen zoom, and none of the other bells and whistles.

Color contrast and color adjustment

The Samsung running Android 7.0 doesn’t offer quite as many options for adjusting color and contrast as iOS. Instead of two options for color inversion, there is only a single Negative colors option, which is almost identical to iOS’s Classic Invert, and a Greyscale setting that is the same as the iOS greyscale color filter. You can even stack the Greyscale and Negative colors options and have an inverse greyscale display. I would love to hear from someone who uses this option, since it results in an interface that is very difficult (for me, anyway) to read and comprehend.

There is a Color adjustment section, but it is nowhere near as nice as the pre-set filters that the iPhone offers. Instead, Android 7.0 requires people to manually arrange blocks of color in order to determine what kind of color adjustment is called for. Many users might find that process to be too cumbersome to want to go through.

A different Android version can make a big difference!

The color settings for Android 7.0 have come a long way from those available on Android 6.0.1. The Nexus 7 (Android 6.0.1) only offers options for high contrast text, color inversion, and color correction for the three most common forms of color blindness, but all of those settings are marked as “experimental” and carry warnings that performance of the device may be adversely affected. So, if you are still running an older version of the Android operating system, upgrade today and enjoy greatly enhanced color and contrast support!

So… do I use any of these settings?

Well… yeah! For one thing, the magnification gestures are great. I triple-tap to zoom into things all of the time and prefer to zoom the entire screen rather than use the magnification window. And when I’m using my smartphone in a low-light area, or outside at night, I will generally turn on color inversion. It’s a lot easier on my eyes than the default screen, even with the brightness turned way down.

I invite you to spend some time exploring the color, text, and magnification accessibility options on your smartphone. You might find some things that you want to incorporate into your daily activities.

Already using color, text, and/or magnification customizations on your mobile device? Tell us about your favorite settings and tools in the comments below!

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