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iOS 14’s Back Tap; a better way to access Control Centre

Posted in Accessibility and Apple

The feature I’m looking forward to the most in iOS 14 wasn’t even mentioned in the WWDC presentation this year. It’s called Back Tap.

9To5Mac said that Back Tap:

didn’t make a big splash in the WWDC keynote but will be super useful for all users

I couldn’t agree more.

What is Back Tap?

Back Tap is just what it sounds: tap the back of your phone either twice or three times to activate a pre-configured action. You can switch it on by heading to:

Settings → Accessibility → Touch → Back Tap

You can then choose Double Tap or Triple Tap, and assign one of the following actions:

  • Accessibility Shortcut
  • App Switcher
  • Control Centre
  • Home
  • Lock Screen
  • Mute
  • Notification Centre
  • Reachability
  • Screenshot
  • Shake
  • Siri
  • Spotlight
  • Volume Up
  • Volume Down

And if you want to bypass Accessibility Shortcut and activate an accessibility feature directly, you can also assign:

  • AssistiveTouch
  • Classic Invert
  • Magnifier
  • Smart Invert
  • Speak Screen
  • VoiceOver
  • Zoom

Then there are a couple of scroll gestures:

  • Scroll Down
  • Scroll Up

Finally, you can access your Shortcuts: any Shortcut you’ve configured can be assigned to a Back Tap!

Control Centre

I’ve loved Control Centre since it was introduced back in 2013 with iOS 7. A quick way to access utilities like WiFi, screen brightness, the torch, etc. was one of the big things iOS was missing.

Control Centre was accessed by an upwards swipe from the bottom of the screen, which made sense and was easy to do with one hand. But when Apple released the iPhone X in 2017, that swipe-up gesture now became the central way to close an app and go back to the home screen, or enter the app switcher; basically a replacement home button. Control Centre was relegated to a swipe-down from the top-right corner gesture.

I understand the theory: the battery and WiFi icons are in that corner, so it makes sense that pulling down from that same corner gives access those (and more) utilities. But I’ve never found it intuitive, in fact it was a while before the penny dropped and I figured out their rationale.

Couple that unintuitiveness with the fact that a swipe-down from anywhere else at top of the screen gives you Notification Centre and you’ve got a user experience issue.

More than the theory and the two-features-being-accessed-in-almost-exactly-the-same-way thing, though, it’s a pain to get to that top corner. Getting to that corner with your right hand means adjusting your grip of the phone considerably (more-so with the larger Max form factor), or using your free hand to swipe down.

I’m right-handed but use my phone predominantly left-handed, which makes it impossible to reach that opposite corner without using my right hand. There are a lot of left-handed folk out there who must have the same problem!

The second Back Tap action

So the first thing I’ll be assigning to Back Tap will be Control Centre. My choice for the second Back Tap action is a little less cut and dried, but my gut tells my I’ll make Reachability my choice for that second, triple Back Tap slot.

Reachability is useful, again, so that I can touch bits of the interface that are otherwise out of easy thumb-reach. It’s not too hard to get to on my iPhone XR and it makes sense: swipe down on the bottom edge of the screen. The problem is, it means:

  • adjusting my grip
  • my thumb is taken away from the front of the screen

Without my thumb hovering above the screen, there’s a higher than normal chance that I fumble and drop £1000 of hardware. Doesn’t make me feel particularly comfortable.

Activating Reachability with a Back Tap makes practical sense and also ties with the theme of tapping the back of my phone to bring things downwards:

  • Control Centre slides down over the top of the interface
  • Reachability moves the whole interface down

By that same logic, I had considered Notification Centre for the triple Back Tap slot, but I almost always get to it from the lock screen; never by swiping down from the top of my phone.

Accessibility

Circling back to that 9To5Mac quote, that Back Tap is going to be useful for all users is exactly right – it’ll be very handy for most users, but likely much more so for those with certain access needs; for example:

  • Magnifier and Zoom will prove very handy for the likes of my 70 year old parents
  • Scroll Up and Scroll Down will be very useful for users with impaired motor function
  • VoiceOver and Speak Screen will help users with Dyslexia read certain page content

First and foremost, Back Tap is an accessibility feature—it’s in the Accessibility section of Settings, after all—but it’s one of those great features that was designed and built for users with access needs, but winds up providing a better experience for everyone. I can’t wait!

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