How to Make Any Smartphone More Accessible and Easier to Use

By David Nield on at

We’re not all blessed with 20/20 vision, super-sharp hearing and the dexterity to easily operate a touchscreen – and even for those of us who are, it’s unlikely to last. Whether you’re adapting a phone for yourself or a friend or family member, these are all the ways you can adapt Android and iOS to make them more accessible.

Adapting Android

Your options on Android might vary depending on the make and model of the phone, but we’ll talk you through what’s available in the stock version of Android 9 Pie – what you have on your phone should bear at least some resemblance to it.

Starting with the basics, text size is adjusted via Settings under Display, Advanced, and Font size (you get some sample text to help you pick the right balance). There’s a separate item on the same screen, Display size, which lets you adjust the size of interface elements (like icons, menus, and dialogues) as well as text.

Back on Settings, tap Accessibility for a plethora of other options: Select to Speak will read out texts, while TalkBack reads out everything on screen, so you don’t have to look at the display at all to operate your phone. The Text-to-speech output link controls the pace and pitch of the speech for both services.

These tools take some getting used to – working through menu options and dialog box options and so on – but after a short adjustment period it can make a real difference if you’re not able to see the screen properly for whatever reason.

Elsewhere on the Accessibility screen, the Colour inversion switch is separate from the dark mode Android is introducing, and simply inverts the colours on screen, potentially making them easier to read for some users. Time to read is an interesting feature too, keeping notifications and other temporary alerts on screen for longer, so you’ve got more time to read them.

Magnification is the menu to head to if you need to make certain parts of the display bigger, as and when needed: The mode can be launched with a triple-tap on screen, or via a software button down at the bottom of the display (it’s not active all the time).

To bring up another software button, this time controlling all kinds of different phone controls, tap Accessibility Menu then Use service from the Accessibility menu. The Overview software button (usually a square, bottom right) gets replaced by an Accessibility button: Tap on it for instant access to volume and brightness controls, the Google Assistant, your recent apps, the Quick Settings pane and more.

The idea is that you spend less time tapping around on screen and fiddling with hardware buttons to access these same options. The phone can be turned off from this pop-up menu, and you can get back to the Accessibility menu if needed too.

Then there’s Bixby or Google Assistant, which are able to turn the potentially arduous task of tapping out web searches or placing phone calls into simple voice commands that might be easier for those with vision or motor control issues. On Pixel phones, Google Assistant can take photos for you as well.

Finally, it’s also worth flagging Android launchers, which reskin the whole operating system – you can find all kinds of launchers for all kinds of purposes, but some are built with simplicity and ease-of-use in mind, and that makes them perfect for someone looking for a more straightforward smartphone experience.

Simple Launcher is one of the best examples of this, with its chunky icons and clearly readable text. Contacts can be dialed right from the desktop, and there’s provision for an SOS contacts list reachable in a single tap too. Even better, it’s all free to use and won’t bombard you with adverts either.

Senior Homescreen is even simpler, though you do have to pay a couple of dollars if you want to remove the ads. You get your choice of apps on the main screen, making any Android phone easier to manage right from the start.

All your launchers can be accessed via Settings through Apps & notifications, Default apps, then Home app.

Adapting iOS

If you dive into the Settings app on iOS, then tap General and Accessibility, you’ve got a choice of ways to make the operating system easier to use. Tap Larger Text, for example, to adjust the size of text in iOS and most apps. You can also use the Bold Text and Increase Contrast toggle switches to make text more legible.

For getting text read out, there are three similar options to pick from on the Accessibility menu. Use VoiceOver to have everything on iOS spoken to you, including menus, dialog boxes and so on – everything that’s on screen gets described to aid navigation. The associated settings let you adjust the speaking rate and pitch.

Under Speech you can enable Speak Selection or Speak Screen. The first one only reads out text when it’s highlighted, and the second one will read out all the text on a screen, but only when you swipe down with two fingers from the top. Again, the speaking rate can be adjusted as you like.

Back on the Accessibility menu, Zoom is perfect for taking a closer look at what’s on screen. Once you’ve enabled it, double-tap with three fingers on the display to zoom in, then drag around with three fingers to move the zoom focus. The options on the menu screen include a slider for adjusting the maximum zoom level.

For those who struggle with operating a touchscreen, iOS has another set of options: Tap AssistiveTouch from the Accessibility menu and you’re able to bring up an on-screen orb providing easy access to notifications, the home screen, the control center, and gestures (like three-finger swipes).

You can actually configure the AssistiveTouch bubble yourself to quite an extent, so you could double-tap it to launch Siri, for example, or press and hold on it to access the notifications. It’s even possible to record custom gestures you find easy to make and associate them with certain iOS actions.

Further down the Accessibility menu are even more options for tweaking how iOS works: Turning on subtitles and captions by default, improving audio quality for hearing aids, ignoring repeated touches, and so on. LED Flash for Alerts is a useful toggle switch to turn on – it’ll light up the camera LED when you get a notification, so you don’t have to rely on hearing an audible tone.

Don’t forget Siri either, and everything it can do to control your phone with your voice (with more options on the way with iOS 13). From Settings, tap Siri & Search to make sure Siri can be activated with a “hey Siri” voice command, and from the lock screen, reducing the amount of fiddling you need to do with buttons and swipes.

Siri is able to make calls for you, send messages, launch apps, add items to your calendar, get directions on Apple Maps, set up reminders, look up the weather, and so on... so anyone who struggles to complete these actions by tapping on the screen can call up assistance from Siri instead.

With the control Apple takes over iOS, you don’t get the same sort of third-party interface-tweaking apps that you do on Android: Apps just don’t have the necessary permissions or hooks into the OS. If you want to make an iPhone easier to use, you’ll need to rely on the built-in options.