Google’s Latest Accessibility Feature Is So Good, Everyone Will Use It

Inclusive design has a way of trickling down to benefit all users, not just the ones for whom it’s originally intended. Voice dictation, for example, was originally pioneered in the 1980s as an accessibility feature; today, millions of non-disabled people use it every day through voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant. The same thing goes for word prediction, a technology developed for people who have trouble typing on traditional computers—but which millions of people use now under the guise of smartphone autocomplete.

It normally takes years, or even decades, for this trickle-down effect to become evident. But it’s easy to imagine that Google’s new Voice Access feature won’t take nearly as long to have an impact outside of its intended audience. Announced this week at I/O 2016 as something that will ship with Android N, Voice Access is a way for people with severe motor impairment to control every aspect of their phones using their voices. But once you see it in action, the broader impact of Voice Access is immediately obvious.

Here’s how it works. When Voice Access is installed, you can enable it with Android’s “Okay Google” command by just saying: “Okay Google, turn on Voice Access.” Once it’s on, it’s always listening—and you don’t have to use the Okay Google command anymore. With Voice Access, all of the UI elements that are normally tap targets are overlaid by a series of numbers. You can tell Voice Access to “tap” these targets by saying the corresponding number aloud.

But these numbers are actually meant to serve as a backup method of control: You can also just tell Voice Assistant what you want to do. For example, you could ask it to “open camera,” and then tell it to “tap shutter.” Best of all? Any app should work with Voice Access, as long as it’s already following Google’s accessibility guidelines.

Technically, Voice Access builds upon two things that Google’s been laying the groundwork on for a while now. The first is natural language processing, which allows Google Assistant to understand your voice. But just as important is the accessibility framework that Google has built into Android. After spending years preaching best accessibility practices to its developers, every app in Android is supposed to be underpinned with labels in plain English describing the functionality of every tap and button—allowing Voice Access to automatically translate it for voice control. And if some developers don’t subscribe to Google’s best accessibility practices? Well, that’s why Voice Access has the redundancy of number labels to call upon.

To read the rest of this article, published in Fast Co Design, please click here.