For many of us, navigating around a smartphone’s menus and settings seems like second nature. But not everyone feels the same way. People with visual impairments may have trouble seeing text and images, those with shaky hands or decreased mobility have difficulty pressing on-screen buttons, and many seniors find the interface confusing rather than intuitive.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By tweaking the settings, you can make text easier to read, simplify the controls, and interact with the screen vocally instead of manually. Here’s how to make a smartphone much more accessible.
To render screens more readable, you can boost the size of the text. But to really make text and objects more visible, you should increase the contrast as well, which will render colors more distinct.
On iOS, head to Settings > General > Accessibility. Use the Larger Text submenu to increase the text size across all apps. A toggle switch underneath lets you make words bold as well. For contrast, go to Increase Contrast, which makes colors sharper and more distinct, so icons will look more well-defined. The same menu screen has options to reduce the transparency of overlays and cut down on motion effects, which might also make iOS visuals clearer.
On Android, you’ll find a similar set of options through the Settings > Accessibility menu. Head to Font size to adjust the size of on-screen text. This change will apply to all of your apps. Just below that option, play with Display size to adjust the size of buttons, icons, and other objects. To adjust contrast, switch the High-contrast text switch to On. Android will now make text clearer and easier to read with tricks like adding a black outline to letters when white text appears on a colorful background. While you’re here, you can also turn off Android animations and invert colors within apps and menus.
One of Android’s handiest tricks is an on-screen magnifier, which you enable from the same Accessibility menu. Just tap Magnification > Magnify with button. Once it’s on, you can hit a button in the lower-right corner to get a closer look at anything on screen.
Instead of changing individual settings, you can completely revamp an Android device to make it easier to navigate. That’s because this operating system supports apps called launchers, which essentially reskin the entire interface of the phone, including home screens, the app drawer, settings menus, and so on. Some launchers aim to serve seniors with streamlined menus and options, large text, and bright colors for easy readability.
Big Launcher ($10 for Android) serves as a good example. It includes chunky, clearly-labeled buttons that are easy to tap, provides quick access to favorite apps and contacts, automatically makes the text large for basic apps such as the text message client. If you want to see what this will look like before paying, check out the free demo.
Necta ($7 for Android) works along similar lines, although it has a more muted color scheme than Big Launcher. We like the integrated SOS message option, which lets the phone’s owner send an emergency message to a designated contact with one tap. The bundled SMS, calendar, and alarm clock apps all make use of larger text and strong contrast. Like with Big Launcher, you can test out a free trial before you purchase the app.
If you own a Samsung phone, this version of Android actually comes with a built-in “Easy Mode” that will simplify the interface without a separate app. On a Galaxy phone, turn it on and off again in Settings > Display > Easy Mode.
On iOS, Apple doesn’t allow apps to take so much control over the phone’s interface. Although you won’t find any equivalent launchers for iPhones, many of the other tweaks on this list will make the default interface much easier to use.
Even with help from magnifiers and over-size buttons, tapping away at a touchscreen can get tougher as we age, particularly if we lose manual dexterity. That’s why every handset on the market now comes with some form of voice-controlled digital assistant. Instead of relying on your fingers to type messages or look up the weather forecast, you can speak out your requests.
For iPhones and iPads, Siri comes built into iOS. From Settings > Siri & Search, enable both Listen for “Hey Siri” and Allow Siri When Locked. Once you do, you can call out “hey Siri” followed by your command—whether or not the screen happens to be locked. For instance, you might try saying, “Hey Siri, text [contact name],” or “hey Siri, what will the weather be like tomorrow?” Apple has a full list of commands here.
Google Assistant is available for both Android (it might come built-in) and iOS. On an iPhone, you have to actually open the app to use Google Assistant’s voice control. But on Android, you can launch a voice command with “hey Google” or “okay Google” even when your phone is locked. To enable this, go to Settings > Google > Search, Assistant & Voice > Settings > Assistant > Phone > Access with Voice Match. As with Siri, you can try “hey Google, send a text to [contact name],” “hey Google, what’s the time in Sydney?” and so on. The full list of commands is here.
If you don’t get along with Siri or Google Assistant, enlist the help of another digital assistant. Samsung’s Bixby comes with Galaxy devices and you can also download it on other Android phones in an early preview form. Microsoft’s Cortana has versions for Android and iOS, and Amazon’s Alexa is also available on Android and iOS.
If you’ve tried adjusting text size and contrast, but still have trouble reading things on your phone, you can have the device speak the words out loud. This can be really helpful for people who struggle to read a screen, but it’s also great for those who want to save their eyes from strain.
On an Android device, return to Settings > Accessibility and enable either Select-to-Speak (a mode where you tap on-screen text to hear it aloud) or TalkBack (the phone automatically reads out all on-screen text and menu options). Once you’ve chosen one of those, tap the Text-to-speech output option to set the speech rate, pitch, and language.
To enable a similar feature on iOS, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver and turn the toggle switch to On. Now your iPhone or iPad will automatically read out any text that appears on screen. From the same menu, you can adjust the reading speed, as well as other options, like whether the device will read notifications aloud.
For both operating systems, once you turn on the audio, you will hear the text from all of your apps, at least until you switch the setting back off. To reduce the amount of noise, you might opt to turn on reading for individual apps, instead of the entire system. For example, read-it-later app Pocket (for Android and iOS) will read a saved article when you tap the headphones button in the toolbar.
On an iPhone or iPad, check out NaturalReader Text To Speech (free or $10 for iOS), which will read short documents, PDFs, and ebooks for free, although it charges $10 for audio longer than three minutes. For your web browing, Speech Central (free or $6 for iOS), will pull recent headlines to read out loud, free for a few stories per day but $6 to get more articles.
On Android, SayIt (free for Android) will read almost any text, article, or website. Voice Aloud Reader (free for Android) also covers documents and websites, and it will also save audio recordings to your phone.
Now that your smartphone has become easier to manage, it can make the rest of the world more accessible as well. Case in point: Its built-in flashlight and camera can illuminate menus in dimly-lit restaurants and clarify hard-to-read text on other documents.
The flashlight is easy enough to activate: On modern iPhones, swipe down from the top right. On iOS models that predate the iPhone X, swipe up from the bottom. Then tap the flashlight button to turn it on and hold it to change the brightness. On Android, swipe down from the top with two fingers, then tap the flashlight button.
If you need something a little more advanced, try EyeReader ($2 for iOS). It turns the flashlight on, while simultaneously using your phone’s camera as a magnifier. This makes viewing books, menus, and other documents doubly clear. On Android, a similar app is Magnifying Glass with Flashlight (free with ads or $2 without ads for Android). Again, it zooms in on any text in front of your phone’s camera, while illuminating the words. If the brightness gets annoying, both of these apps let you disable the flashlight.