Simplifying the iPhone for special needs users: Notifications

I’m nearing the end of my Smartphones for All book chapter on initial iPhone setup. I thought this would be short chapter, but of course I started I learned there was a lot to walk through. This chapter needs to be simplified but I’ll need to rewrite it anyway once iOS 11 is out.

Writing this short section on Notifications made me revisit my own iPhone’s settings. In particular I realized how little value I get from the Notification Center screen…

Notifications are how the iPhone gets an Explorer’s attention through Sounds, Badges, and Banners/Alerts 1. You can change the Sounds for some apps, but most use the system standard Alert sound. Badges appear as red disks atop App icons showing counts of tasks undone. Banners float down over the screen even when an iPhone is locked.

Notifications can be … distracting. Indeed, that’s the intent. Apps want attention, and Notifications are how they get attention. 

Notifications can be a good thing. A ringing phone is a notification. Most people want to be notified of incoming iMessages — at least most of the time.

Notifications can also be an energy draining attention sucking black hole. Like Facebook notifications, for example. Each distraction cuts into an Explorer’s attention budget. For an Explorer who may struggle with managing distractions this can be more than a nuisance.

Happily it’s relatively easy to get control of Notifications. I recommend a Guide turn off almost all Notifications to begin with. Notifications can’t be locked by iPhone Restrictions, but if an Explorer turns on too many this can be a good learning opportunity 2.

Notification Settings are divide into two sections – GOVERNMENT ALERTS and the oddly named NOTIFICATION STYLE. I recommend turning AMBER Alerts off; in a city these are not rare and they are very disruptive. Emergency Alerts are more of a judgment call, particularly for Tornado prone regions. I do turn these off.

The NOTIFICATION SYLE section holds all App notifications. When an App is installed it tries to turn on every Notification type. So this section needs regular maintenance! Fortunately it’s easy to turn off all Notifications for an App. Tap on the App name, then toggle Allow Notifications to off.

I recommend turning every Notification off except for,,,, and Even when Notifications are enabled I recommend turning “Show in Notification Center” off. The Notification Center confuses most users; it’s best to keep it empty.

There are other ways to adjust notifications, but the key thing is to limit what apps get to use up an Explorer’s attention budget and to keep the confusing Notification Center screen empty.


1 There’s an option in iOS Notification settings to switch the Alert Style for an unlocked iPhone between Alerts and Banners. Alerts stay up until they are dismissed, Banners appear briefly then go away. This is so obscure almost nobody knows about it. Forget you read this.

2 If an App like Facebook is too distracting it may, of course, be a candidate for removal depending on the needs of an individual Explorer.

Simplifying the iPhone for Explorers: Accessibility options

From a Smartphones for All book chapter on initial setup of an Explorer’s iPhone …

The iPhone Accessibility settings are largely organized for users with vision, hearing, and movement problems. These may be very important for many Explorers but that’s a topic for another book. Apple’s iPhone User Guide and especially their Support pages have good discussions of Accessibility features like the VoiceOver screen reader.

One day there may be be an Accessibility setting that would simplify the iPhone for Explorers with cognitive disabilities but for now most Accessibility settings make the iPhone more confusing to use. For example, Magnifier enables a triple click shortcut to turn the iPhone into a great magnifying glass, but it’s too easy to trigger by accident.

There are a few accessibility settings that do simplify the user interface. For most Explorers, indeed for most iPhone users, 3D Touch is a low value feature that is mostly activated by accident. I recommend disabling it in Accessibility. Shake to Undo is often activated by accident — turn that one off too. If Vibration bothers an Explorer that can also be disabled.

If an Explorer is bothered by “special effects” there’s an Accessibility setting called Reduce Motion that can help. It gets rid of annoying effects that can bother some Explorers — and me! I turn it off on my iPhone.

If an Explorer is accidentally triggering Siri with the home button there’s an option to turn that off in Accessibility Home Button. It’s generally easier to just disable Siri though.3D touch. Siri is surprisingly hard to use effectively, many iPhone users ignore her.

There are five ways to make the iPhone display easier to read for people who don’t have perfect reading vision. Yes, this is confusing! Apple will probably revise these in future.

The first way is to buy a “Plus” sized iPhone. Text and everything else is a bit larger on Plus devices. These cost more money and are too big for many situations, but if you don’t already own an iPhone this is something to consider.

The second, and best option for most users, is to enable “Display Zoom”  in the Display & Brightness. This causes few problems and is a great option for many iPhone users, including many users over age 45. It makes touch targets a bit bigger too, so it’s helpful for Explorers who miss their taps.

There are more options in Accessibility if Display Zoom doesn’t suffice. Larger Text works reasonably well as long as you don’t enable “Larger Accessibility Sizes”. Some application screen text will crowd together. 

The next options are more problematic. Larger Text with “Larger Accessibility Sizes” enables super large text — but most apps have trouble with this text size. There’s a “Zoom option” in Accessibility, not to be confused with “Display Zoom” described above, that can be used to magnify parts of the screen. It can work very well for low vision users, but it is complex to use.

See also sphone4all posts in the best you can be blog.