Siri Shortcuts Can Make iPhones and iPads More Accessible for the Blind and Visually Impaired
When Apple released iOS 12 in 2018 it included a new feature called Siri Shortcuts. This feature extends the ability of Siri to control the actions of both native and third-party apps. A Shortcut is a set of instructions initiated with one command that replaces the many tapping gestures usually required to accomplish a task. Shortcuts can be created that chain together a sequence of actions by multiple apps. They should be especially useful for visually impaired users who find it challenging to interact with their phones and tablets using the standard see and tap techniques or with VoiceOver.
A fairly simple example of a Shortcut is one that initiates a search of YouTube with dictation. After Siri is instructed to "perform a voice search of YouTube", the YouTube app will be opened, focus will be on the search field, and dictation mode will be activated. At this point the user is prompted by a chime to speak their search words, and then the results are returned. A more complex example would be a "Good Morning" Shortcut that turns on the house lights, starts the coffee maker, reads today's calendar events, and then plays an iTunes playlist. Users can create their own Shortcuts or download them from many sources.
Shortcuts and Accessibility
Some accessibility issues may arise while exploring the use of Shortcuts, and some Shortcuts may not be suitable for the visually-impaired, particularly those using VoiceOver. Anyone can create and share a Shortcut, so some have not been made with all users in mind. There are also areas in which Apple can improve the accessibility of the tools it provides for Shortcut development. As with any new technology, the accessibility features should improve as it matures. In the meantime there are plenty of useful and accessible Shortcuts available.
Siri analyzes the user's regular activity on their device and then suggests shortcuts based on this data. These suggestions appear on the Lock Screen, in Search, and in Settings, and are activated with a tap. An example of a suggested Shortcut would be to launch Safari and go directly to a frequently visited webpage. Siri Suggestions can be tied to a voice command and saved as follows:
How to Save a Siri Suggestion as a Siri Shortcut
- Open the Settings App and select Siri & Search.
- Siri suggestions are located in two places. A general list is under the SUGGESTED SHORTCUTS heading. A listing by app is found by tapping on the ALL Shortcuts button.
- Select a suggested shortcut from either list by tapping on it.
- The Add To Siri page will be opened for recording the voice command. A suggested command is displayed, but any trigger phrase may be recorded.
- Tap on the "record" button to record the phrase. The recording will stop automatically when you stop speaking, and the recorded phrase is visually displayed. The phrase can be re-recorded.
- Tap on the Done button in the upper right corner to save the Shortcut.
To create, modify, download and manage Siri Shortcuts the new Apple Shortcuts app is used. Download Shortcuts in the App Store.
Exploring the Shortcuts App
There are two main sections of the Shortcuts app that are selected by tabs at the bottom of the page. The Library section is where currently installed Shortcuts are managed and new ones created. A Shortcut can be activated by tapping on its rectangular tab. To access the actions and settings for a Shortcut tap on the ellipsis (three dots) in the upper right of its tab.
The Gallery section is a list of Shortcuts for download that is curated by Apple. There is a Search field at the top of the page, and the Shortcuts are organized by catagories.
How to Download a Shortcut from the Gallery
- Select the desired Shortcut by tapping on its tab.
- A pop-up containing the Show Actions button will appear. Tap on this for a list of the actions and apps the Shortcut will use.
- To download the Shortcut tap on the Get Shortcut button. A large checkmark indicates when the download has successfully completed.
How to Add a Siri Prompt to a Shortcut
Shortcuts can be downloaded from many sources, not just the Gallery. After a Shortcut is installed a widget may be automatically added to the Today Screen. It starts the Shortcut with a tap. Once the Shortcut has been downloaded the voice command must be recorded. Note that not all Shortcuts can be triggered using Siri. For instance, some Shortcuts can only be started from the sharesheet in Safari by tapping. It depends on how the Shortcut was designed. Set-up the Shortcut as follows:
- Locate the Shortcut's new tab in the Library section of the Shortcuts App.
- Tap on the ellipsis in the upper right of the tab to open the edit screen. This screen is where the Shortcut's actions can be modified and a Siri trigger phrase added.
- Tap on the shortcut settings button in the top righthand corner of the page and a pop-up appears.
- The pop-up menu has several items that allow the Shortcut to be renamed, customized, and added as an icon to the Homescreen.
- To add the Siri voice command tap on the Add to Siri button. This will open the recording screen as detailed above in the How to Save a Siri Suggestion as a Siri Shortcut paragraph.
Places to Download Shortcuts
There are many websites where Shortcuts can be downloaded. Here is a list of a few with links:
- Sharecuts website. A community site where Shortcuts can be easily searched for and downloaded.
- Reddit Shortcuts Forum. A good place to discuss and download Shortcuts.
- The most useful Siri Shortcuts for iPhone. An article with detailed descriptions and download links.
- 100 apps that work with Siri Shortcuts. An article listing apps with the Shortcuts technology integrated. Shortcuts cannot be downloaded from this article, but it does provide links to the parent apps.
- YouTube. Many videos demonstrating Shortcuts with download links often included.
Creating Custom Shortcuts
Modifying Shortcuts or building them from scratch is not difficult, but it is beyond the scope of this article. They are made by selecting and arranging "actions" from a list in the edit screen of the Shortcuts app. A good place to start learning is the Apple Shortcuts User Guide. Other resources are Matthew Cassinelli's YouTube channel. and Brandon Butch's YouTube channel.
Examples of Shortcuts for Download
Listed below are sample Shortcuts that can be downloaded with the links provided:
Word Of The Day Shortcut
This Shortcut links to Webster Dictionary's RSS feed for a page defining a new word daily. After the page loads, focus will be on the "Done Button", and VoiceOver gestures can be used to read the contents. The Shortcut can be downloaded from the Gallery within the app or with the following link.
Play Spotify Track Shortcut
This Shortcut works with the free Spotify App which must be installed first. It launches the Spotify app, prompts for a vocal search command, and then plays the track. This is an example of one that conflicts with VoiceOver. The Shortcut automatically initiates a dictation field while VoiceOver is giving audible feedback which is inadvertantly recorded as input. A work-around is to temporarily toggle VoiceOver speech off with the three-finger double tap gesture. Pandora is a similar app that already integrates the Shortcuts feature, and shortcuts can be created in the settings section of that app.
Search Amazon Shortcut
This Shortcut uses the device's camera to scan a bar code, and then search for the item in the online store. The Amazon mobile app must be installed. Unfortunately, no audible assistance is given to aid VoiceOver users to locate the bar code with the camera.