I used switch control for a day

Stephen Hawking used something called a switch to communicate, author books and surf the web. Just like Stephen, millions of people around the world with motor impairments use switches to access technology. Sadly, the awareness and knowledge about this assistive technology is generally low. So it’s time to switch the spotlight on switch users!

The author Hampus looking suspiciously at a red, round button in his hand

Short note before we start: This article was first written for the great initiative 24 Accessibility – an accessibility article each day in December before Christmas.

Switches can look very different, but in the image above I’m holding a classic one – basically, a big button that you press to navigate your computer, smartphone or tablet.

I’m an accessibility nerd. I organize accessibility meetups, run a company focused on accessibility (Axess Lab), can recite the accessibility guidelines in my sleep and own 6 different accessibility T-shirts. But even though I live and breathe accessibility, I realize I have a very limited knowledge about switches.

I know way more about screen readers than I do about switches. When you think about it, that’s really strange. Looking at pure numbers, there are far more people around the world who have motor impairments like Cerebral Palsy, ALS and Parkinson’s disease than who are blind.

So why do we hear and read so little about switch accessibility? I don’t know! But whatever the reason, I feel it’s time to switch it up! Time to learn more about this assistive technology and what we as developers and designers can do to make our technology switch accessible.

So I used a switch control for a day and I’d like to share the insights it gave me with you!

My setup

I used a classic type of switch, basically a big colored button. It’s the one I’m looking suspiciously at in the first image of this article. This type of switch can be placed in the users’ hands, by their head, elbows, feet or wherever they feel most comfortable with it. I held my switch in my hands.

I should mention that there are many other types of switches:

  • Sip-and-puff switches. They are “clicked” by sipping and puffing into a straw-like-component.
  • Sensory switches. Stephen Hawking had a sensor attached to his cheek that he activated by a small movement with his cheek up or down.
  • Camera switches. On iOS products, you can activate a switch by tilting your head to the side.

There are many other variations of switches, but they all work similarly to the original button-switch, so I used a button.

It should also be mentioned that I used a single switch. You can set up multiple switches for different actions – for instance, you could assign one to take you to the home screen, one to move the cursor forward (like pressing the tab-key on a keyboard) and one to click.

However, it is possible to use a single switch to fully interact with technology. Which I think is pretty cool so I wanted to try that! Also, I know of people who use a single-switch-setup, for instance, the YouTuber Christopher Hills, whose channel I strongly recommend you check out.

I used the built-in setting Switch Control in iOS products — on an iPhone 7, MacBook and Apple TV. It is, of course, possible to use switches on a PC or Android device, but I felt it would be enough of a challenge for me to try it out on one operating system this time.

Insights

Let me share the insights I got from my day of switch usage with you.

Technology is awesome

Even though I experienced a few obstacles along the way which I’ll go through below, the main thing that stuck with me is how awesome this technology is. All you need is control of a tiny part of your body so you can activate a switch, and suddenly the whole world opens up through technology. You can surf online, pay bills, order pizza, communicate with friends and unlock doors, all through a single switch.

Imagine the difference in independence and quality of life this means for people with severe motor impairments living today compared to — say — 40 years ago.

Even though the technology is awesome, there are still things that could improve a lot to give a more equal access and experience of technology out there.

Typing is slow

Typing with switch control is much, much slower than I’m used to. Here’s a video where I type “Hello World.” If you don’t want to watch the video I describe what happens in it in the text below the video player.

Video description: A focus indicator jumps across the keyboard and you need to wait until it’s at the letter you want to type. It takes me over a minute to write “Hello World.”

After having practiced a fair bit with typing, I measured how quickly I could type a happy birthday text to my mom. As a comparison, I first typed it with my fingers like I normally do, then a second time with switch control activated. The message was 18 words long. Here’s the result:

  • Without switch control: 43 seconds
  • With switch control: 8 mins 52 seconds (or 532 seconds)

So it took me over 12 times as long to type with switch control activated, even though I made very few mistakes and used word suggestions as often as possible.

Calculating my typing speed, I was able to type just over 2 words per minute. 2.2 to be exact. As a reference, this article is around 2700 words long, so at 2.2 words per minute, it would take me 20 hours 27 minutes to write it.

I asked a colleague of mine to try out typing as well. She had not had the same amount of practice and was able to type at about half my speed, around 1 word per minute.

These speeds are in line with sources on Stephen Hawking’s typing speed, which state Hawking could type around 1 word per minute before adding word predictions which doubled his speed.

The slow typing speed came with a couple of insights for me:

  • Word predictions when typing is super useful. But word prediction could improve a lot. For instance, I wrote “switch control” twice in one sentence, but my onscreen keyboard didn’t suggest it to me any quicker the second time around.
  • Autocomplete in search fields is very helpful.
  • Time limits – getting kicked out of a form if you don’t complete it in a set amount of time – is a severe accessibility barrier.
  • Forms that prefill automatically save tons of time and energy.
  • Dictation — speaking your message — would make typing much quicker. However, many people with motor impairments also have a speech impairment that makes dictation impossible. So I decided not to use dictation in my one-day-experiment.

Scrolling is sometimes painfully slow

I think everyone would agree that scrolling is something you do quite often, especially on smaller devices like smartphones.

So it surprised me that it was painfully slow to scroll on an iPhone. Let me break down what switch users have to do to scroll:

  • 2 quick clicks to bring up an interaction menu
  • 1 click to select the row with scroll button
  • 1 click to select the scroll button
  • 1 click to select the row with scroll down button
  • 1 click to select the scroll down button
  • 1 click to go back to the main menu
  • 1 click to close the interaction menu

So in total 8 clicks to scroll down. Here’s a short video that shows the interaction described above when I scroll on Twitter.

Video description: Scrolling one screen on Twitter with switch control. 20 seconds was needed to bring up, navigate and close the interaction menu.

On Android, the scroll gesture seems to be much more effective, as illustrated in this YouTube clip: A11ycast with Rob Dodson – Switch Device (Youtube). Here it just takes two clicks to scroll: one when the whole page is selected, another one when the scroll down button is selected.

What about on Mac? Well, it was much quicker to select the scroll gesture than on an iPhone, but the page scrolled so little with each click that it felt like a joke. Here’s a video that shows this in action. Each click of the scroll gesture scrolls the page approximately 5% down.

Video description: Using switch control to scroll a webpage on a Mac. A focus indicator automatically travels quickly across an interactive menu at the bottom of the screen, 7 steps before it reaches the scroll button. After pressing it, the page just scrolls down slightly, and the cursor starts from the beginning of the interactive menu again.

I later realized that I could tap multiple times on the scroll gesture, which helped speed things up a lot. But it would be much smoother if one click on the gesture started scrolling the page down and the next click stopped it.

On Apple TV scrolling was much easier. Here’s a video of that in action.

Video description: A scroll bar shows up on the side of the page in the YouTube app on a TV. I just select that to scroll down and the focus stays in the scrollbar until I decide to leave it. Then I enter a horizontal scroll instead, which works in the same way. Finally, I activate the video I want to view.

All in all, I think that teams designing switch interfaces for operating systems should focus a lot on improving scrolling. There’s a lot of room for improvement of the user experience in this aspect.

For everyone who builds websites and apps: what we can do is make sure important interactive elements and information are at the top of the page. The classic principle of “above the fold” (viewable on the screen without scrolling) is very relevant for switch control users. Scrolling requires more time and energy for switch users. In the words of usability gurus Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman: the interaction cost of scrolling is high for switch users.

Mistakes increase

I found myself making mistakes a lot. It was mostly due to me pressing the switch too late, resulting in me activating something I didn’t want to click. The number of misclicks would probably decrease with practice. However, with more practice, I’m pretty sure I would increase the speed of the cursor that moves across the screen, and higher speed would mean a bigger risk of mistakes. So a well-designed error handling is really important.

Twitter had a feature I really appreciated. I was replying to a tweet when I accidentally pressed the back button. I had spent a good five minutes writing the reply so I got quite frustrated. But luckily, Twitter had saved my work-in-progress so when I clicked the reply button again I could continue from where I was when the mistake happened. Great stuff!

Notifications steal focus, literally

Whenever I received a notification on my phone, focus switched from where I was to the notification. That might sound like a good feature, making it easy to quickly open the notification.

However, I found it quite frustrating, especially when I was typing something. It takes a while to get the cursor to select the correct key on the onscreen keyboard, and if I received a notification while typing I had to start all over again.

Here’s a video showing this in action:

Video description: I’m writing a Tweet on my phone and have waited 7 seconds for the cursor to get to the “m” when I receive a notification. Focus jumps away from the keyboard, up to the notification at the top of the page and I have to start over typing.

I – like most people – get quite a lot of notifications from email, Slack, Facebook, news apps and more, so this disruption while typing happened frequently.

Here are two different ways I think Apple could go about to improve the user experience of notifications when switch control is activated:

Solution 1: If the user has focus on the keyboard, don’t switch focus to notifications when they appear. Instead, let the user finish typing and go to the notification center when they’re done.

Or even better:

Solution 2: Delay showing notifications until the user is done typing. Then they get the chance of both finishing what they’re writing and click the notification. Of course, there would have to be some time limit in place, so notifications show if the user has a keyboard open for long periods of time.

Item mode versus point mode

There are two main modes in switch control on iOS devices, and I’m pretty sure it’s something equivalent on Android:

  1. Item mode – the cursor jumps from object to object on the screen. Kind of like pressing the tab-key over and over again on your keyboard. Although it’s a bit smarter than the tab key since it groups elements together to allow users to be more efficient.
  2. Point mode – like a virtual mouse pointer. First, a vertical line swipes from left to right on the screen, you activate your switch to stop the line. Then a horizontal line swipes from top to bottom and you activate your switch to stop that one too. Where the two lines intersect, a click is triggered.

Here’s a video that first shows me using item mode to navigate BBC’s website. I then switch over to point mode, so you can see the difference.

Video description: First a focus indicator jumps across different objects on the website. Since there are quite a lot of links and buttons, it takes a long time to get through everything. I then bring up a menu and switch to point mode. I first stop a vertical line, then a horizontal line, where I want to click. This is much faster than the first item mode.

I found item mode to be easier and more efficient when navigating apps and my phone interface – like the home screen, settings and so on. However, on websites, it was hard knowing which order things would receive focus in, and strange grouping of objects often confused me. So I found that changing to point mode when surfing the web made things much easier.

Surfing the web in point mode is something that YouTuber Christopher Hills explains that he also does, for the same reasons.

Websites could make item mode navigation simpler by having cleaner interfaces with less clickable things on each view and by making sure the order that objects receive focus is logical. Then switch users might not have to change to point mode, which would be nice since it takes some time to switch between the modes.

I struggled with connection issues

Finally, I want to say something about connection issues. For some reason, I had a hard time connecting the switch to my devices. Quite a few times, it appeared in the Bluetooth menu but wouldn’t connect. I’ve had this issue earlier too, and sometimes it has been because I’ve forgotten to unpair it from another device, but this time I swear it was just messing with me for the fun of it!

I had to wait for the switch to drain its battery and restart since there’s no way to restart it manually. Then the switch worked fine again. But it took over a day to get this fixed.

I talked to a friend who has a sister who uses switches, and she experiences the same issue with another Bluetooth switch she’s using. It keeps unpairing for some reason.

I see a pattern emerge if you consider other assistive technologies as well. The last few months I’ve met three different blind screen reader users who have had to restart their devices when they froze in the middle of usage.

So it seems to me like assistive technology bug far more often than mainstream technology. Which is a huge problem considering that many assistive technology users rely heavily on their tech working.

Try it yourself

There are a few ways to try switch control yourself:

  • The easiest way to try this out if you don’t own a switch is probably to use an Android phone. Find the phone’s accessibility/ease-of-use settings and go into Switch Access. The reason Android is great is that you can assign the up and down volume keys as switches and get going really quickly, without having to buy a switch.
  • If you own a Mac you can assign any key on your keyboard as a switch, which is great. So go into Settings and Accessibility to try this out.
  • On iOS products you can set the phone’s screen to be a switch. This is scary since when you’ve activated this, any tap on the screen is like clicking a switch, instead of what usually happens when you tap the screen. You can also use the camera as a switch, so when you tilt your head left or right it activates the switch. But this wasn’t very stable when I tested it.
  • If you want to try a real Switch you can get one for around €100. Just Google “buy switch assistive technology” and you’ll get loads of hits.

My key takeaways

To summarize, this experience left me with three main takeaways:

  1. Switch technology is awesome. Even though most things take longer time, I could still do everything I otherwise do – just using a single switch. What a great leap towards an independent life this must be for people with limited motor abilities!
  2. There’s a lot that switch interface producers like Apple could do to improve the user experience for switch users. For instance more efficient scrolling, less annoying notifications and improved word predictions.
  3. Designers and developers of apps and websites should mainly keep their interfaces clean, avoid time limits and have good error handling. So basically work on creating a good user experience for all users.

Those are the main things that stuck with me, but…

…don’t rely on my experience!

My experience of using a switch for a day is by no means comparable to someone using it every day of their life. So I want to end this article by pointing you to resources where you can learn about switch control from actual switch users:

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