Last September, I wrote an article in which I discussed the ways Apple could make iOS more visually accessible. In hindsight, my wish list of improvements, while good, was incomplete.
The glaring omission in that piece has to do with enhancing the accessibility of emoji on the iPhone. As someone who tries to use emoji on Twitter and in Messages as much as possible, it’s obvious the emoji keyboard on the iPhone is in major need of a visual overhaul.
Show Your Faces
From my perspective, the emoji keyboard has two main problems:
First and foremost, emojis are way too small for me to see comfortably—this is especially true of the ones depicting facial expressions. I have to squint mightily in an effort to make out whether a face is smiling or frowning, for example, and the resulting eye strain is a strong indicator that finding these little guys isn’t the greatest experience. (The same complaint against faces goes for people, food, and so on.)
Secondly, I find the emoji picker itself to be inaccessible as well. A “redesigned emoji keyboard with over 300 new characters,” according to Apple, shipped in April 2015 as part of the iOS 8.3 update. Although the new keyboard was an improvement over the seemingly infinite scroll-fest of the prior design, it isn’t without its problems. In terms of accessibility, I find the top labels (e.g., Frequently Used, Smileys & People) and the bottom tabs (the icons for switching categories) to be equally hard to decipher because of their small size and low contrast.
Together, the emojis’ small size and the relatively cumbersome mechanics for choosing them makes for a less-than-ideal experience. Presentation is such a fundamental aspect of using (and liking) software that is even more critical to a person with a visual impairment. People like me are hyper-sensitive to how things look and are arranged onscreen because our eyes need to work harder to get the most out of what we’re using.
In this case, because the emoji keyboard is hard for me to navigate means that using emoji is less fun. If they’re less fun, we’re less likely to use them — and that’s not good.
Giving Emojis a Face Lift
Here’s my proposal for improving iOS’ emoji keyboard:
What I’d like to see Apple do is not necessarily make the emojis themselves bigger — the keyboard only fits a finite space, after all — but rather change how they’re presented to the user.
Here’s my suggestion: Apple should take the magnification animation it already employs on the text keyboard and apply it to the emojis. Every time I press on, say, a smiley face, the face would “pop up” in the same manner a letter does when you press its corresponding key. Taking this a step further, it would also be helpful if you could use the magnification loupe (for moving the insertion point) to scrub through emoji. The only caveat here is that Apple would need to make the loupe larger, which is something I wrote about in my aforementioned article. As it is now, the current magnification level wouldn’t do much good to compensate for the small size of the emoji.
As for fixing the labels and tabs on the keyboard, again I’m aware that making them bigger is unfeasible due to space constraints. That said, it is feasible to give the labels/tabs higher contrast. The obvious fix would be to simply make it bolder so as to make them stand out better. All I really need is more contrast.
On iPad, Third-Party Keyboards, and Diversity
For all its annoyances on iPhone, it’s worth noting that the emoji keyboard is great on iPad, particularly on the iPad Pro. This is due to the screen being so large; there’s more room onscreen, so emoji are rendered bigger to fit the space. I’ve been using an iPad Pro for almost a month, and I find it very easy to use the emoji keyboard. I feel no eye strain whatsoever, and I’m using the emoji keyboard more on the iPad Pro simply because its ginormous screen is more conducive for my visual needs.
(As an aside, the emoji keyboard may be better on the larger iPhone 6s Plus. However, it’s been a while since I’ve used one regularly, so I don’t remember. Theoretically, it’s better.)
Regarding a third-party emoji keyboard, using one in lieu of the stock one doesn’t help considerably. I tested David Smith’s Emoji++ to gauge the differences in the experiences, and I was left disappointed. While Emoji++ is well done, the small size problem persists, but a bigger problem is how third-party keyboards are implemented. As I wrote in 2014, the way in which users must install alternative keyboards and the limitations Apple imposes on developers isn’t great. After trying a few keyboards for a short time, I felt it was best to use the system one until further notice. Hence, Emoji++ isn’t in the cards, at least for me.
Lastly, on the topic of diversity. Going back to the iOS 8.3 update, it was also noteworthy for its support of more ethnically diverse emoji that included different skin tones. A terrific addition, but in the words of Tim Cook, “there is a lot more work to be done.”
I’d like to see Apple push even further in diversifying the emoji set by working with the Unicode Consortium to create even more diverse and inclusive emoji. Specifically, it’d be great to see emojis depicting persons with disabilities—for example, a person with a blind cane or in a wheelchair. This concept is similar to the “diversity dolls” that many early childhood educators use in their classrooms in order to teach young children that people are diverse and unique.
Looking Toward the Future
I’m optimistic Apple will make the accessibility of emoji better on iPhone. To me, this issue is representative of the “low-hanging fruit” that Apple has yet to pick from the tree. Beyond bug fixes and iteration on the discrete Accessibility features, making the emoji keyboard more visually accessible will go a long way in making iOS as a whole better for users with low vision.