Making Mobile Devices and Computers Easier to Use for Seniors — Part Three — Audio Enhancements

Seniors using a laptop

This is the third of a three-part series on ways to make digital devices easier to use for seniors. It was originally published by Community Technology Network (CTN) and is reprinted here by permission of CTN executive director Kami Griffiths. All images in the piece are courtesy of CTN as well. Find the first part on magnification here. Find the second part on audio enhancements here.

As seniors continue to make up a growing portion of today's digital society, it is important that they be able to confidently use their devices. We hope that the following how-to directions will be useful for librarians to help their patrons listen to spoken text, rather then having to read everything. They should also help seniors use voice commands to minimize typing on their devices.

Enable Spoken Audio Feedback

Google TalkBack, installed on all Android devices, provides spoken feedback when the user interacts with different elements of the user interface. When the feature is enabled, launching the Gallery app, for example, will trigger it to announce, "Gallery, showing 1 of 5." When switching orientation modes, it will say "Portrait" or "Landscape."

A text-to-speech engine must be installed and enabled for TalkBack to function. To check if one is installed, go to Settings > Accessibility > Text-to-speech options. Under Preferred TTS engine, if nothing is listed, download Google Text-to-speech — an excellent engine that powers apps to read text aloud in many different languages — and enable it here.

Google Text-to-speech

Then go to Settings > Accessibility > TalkBack and set the switch to On.

go to Settings - Accessibility - TalkBack and set the switch to On

Once TalkBack is enabled, gliding your finger along the screen will cause a colored outline to appear around objects like buttons and text. It will then describe what was touched. Because gestures like swiping and single-tapping are used to select things for TalkBack, two fingers must now be used to swipe, and double-tap to activate selections.

Since TalkBack creates such a unique user experience — where universal gestures for interacting with the device become fundamentally modified — you must assess whether the senior will be comfortable enough using it before committing to teaching him or her to rely on it.

VoiceOver is the iOS equivalent of TalkBack. It also allows you to tap or drag to select items to be read aloud, and similarly announces things like push notifications and system events like screen dimming. To enable VoiceOver, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver; then turn the switch On.

go to Settings - General - Accessibility - VoiceOver and turn the switch On

Once VoiceOver is enabled, just as with TalkBack, you must use double-taps to activate selections, and three fingers to swipe.

On Windows devices, you can use the built-in Narrator for audio feedback on dialog boxes, window controls and text. Enable it by pressing Windows key + U and then clicking Start Narrator.

Enable Windows Narrator by pressing Windows key plus U and then clicking Start Narrator

Unlike on Android and iOS devices, text and buttons are read in sequential order, instead of based on touch selection.

Encourage the Use of Voice Commands

Using voice commands is fast becoming a powerful and ubiquitous way of interfacing with mobile devices. It is also a great way for seniors to carry out tasks — from sending messages to loved ones, to searching for information more easily.

Apple introduced Siri, its voice-activated virtual assistant, starting with the iPhone 4S. It is also available on third-generation iPads or later. To enable it on compatible devices, go to Settings > General > Siri and set the switch to On.

go to Settings - General - Siri and set the switch to On

Once Siri is enabled, pressing and holding the Home key will prompt it to listen for speech input.

Once Siri is enabled, pressing and holding the Home key will prompt it to listen for speech input

The senior can then say natural commands like "Search for health news" or "FaceTime Alex."

You can also activate Siri by pressing and holding the center button of Apple's Earpods, or by saying, "Hey, Siri" in iOS 8 and later if you have allowed it via Settings > General > Allow "Hey, Siri."

Settings - General - Allow "Hey, Siri."

Many Android manufacturers, including Samsung, have similarly simple-to-use voice-command apps like S Voice preinstalled on their smartphones that are used in the same way.

apps like Samsung S Voice are preinstalled on some smartphones

The Google app is also great at carrying out voice commands, with the added bonus of being compatible with both iOS and Android. To use it, the senior taps the microphone button or says "OK Google," then speaks the command.

Google app

For years now, Google has been steadily implementing voice controls across all its apps.

Google Translate app

Google "search by voice" option

As voice command functionality continues to spread across web apps, it is good practice to teach seniors to recognize the microphone icon as the universal symbol for activating voice commands.

Image 1: Jody Morris / CC BY-SA