Using Apple’s Assistive Access feature to create the ultimate dumb phone experience

How iOS 17’s new feature can help you reclaim your focus

There’s one feature in Apple’s new iOS 17 update that is probably overlooked. It is called Assistive Access. In Apple’s own words:

Assistive Access is a distinctive iOS experience, with more focused features and a simplified user interface, which allows people with cognitive disabilities to use iPhone with greater ease and independence.

I first saw this previewed on X (Twitter) by MrNoble who shared images of the (then) rumoured feature. I thought it would be a good idea for those who want a simplified phone experience. Similar offerings have been made by Google and Samsung. I had previously modified my Android phone around Square Home launcher and Blloc Ratio launcher (my favourite user interface of all time) to achieve the same result.

Assistive Access allows you to choose up to six apps on your phone and display them as large square blocks or horizontal bars. Since the iOS 17.0.2 update, more apps can be added. Additional access to the app’s abilities need permission confirmation. For example, you will be asked if the app can have access to location, photos, contacts, etc.

Once setup has been completed, the iPhone will reboot into Assistive Access mode. Features like swiping down for notifications and command centre are inaccessible. Big text. Big buttons. Basic access. You are left with a dumbed down phone experience.

Settings - Customise how you interact with Assistive Access
Settings — Customise how you interact with Assistive Access

How do you access Assistive Access?

Go to Settings > Accessibility > Assistive Access (under General).

From here you can configure up to six apps, decide rows or grid for the UI, choose a wallpaper (see image for other settings).

To leave Assistive Access, triple-click your power button and enter the four-digit code, which you are asked to create.

You have to manually go to the settings page to enter Assistive Access. That’s why I selected to assign triple-clicking the power to enter into the feature. It makes the switching convenient and accessible.

My Two-day challenge

Originally, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see how Assistive Access would be a great experience to practice digital minimalism. The challenge was simple — spend two days in Assistive Access mode with only six apps available — Phone, iMessage, Apple Music, Calendar, Notes, and Reminders. I stated on X I would spend one day in this mode, but where’s the challenge in that? I opted for two days instead.

Day 1

Not the most eventful day. I found the lack of apps available made me use my phone less. I mostly accessed the music app on the way to work and Apple Notes to record a few ideas for an upcoming blog.

Not only that, but I noticed the apps ran at a slower pace like they were being run through an emulator. This is noticeable when turning the calendar app into landscape mode. There was a juddering, clunky animation experienced as it transitioned to presenting my calendar in the weekly view. I thought Apple would take more care with the quality of Assistive Access.

Another thing to be aware of is the enlarged menus and text. It’s nothing too concerning. After all, this is an accessibility feature. Apps like Apple Notes and iMessage look strangely unpolished. Too much of the screen real estate is cluttered with menus and formatting options. There’s very little area for the content to be shown.

I managed the first day with ease. I miss the simplicity of using a feature phone. However, I could quickly see why I saw the restrictiveness as a hindrance. The clumsy UI and oversized keyboard made sure I disliked using my apps. Due to my limited access to other apps, I finished the day on 68% battery life. There was no need to put my phone on charge because knew my phone could make through another day.

Day 2

The day didn’t go to plan. I found myself existing Assistive Access mode by 14:30. The reason? My place of work (a school) had received a phone call to be informed it would be facing a three-day inspection by an education agency called Ofsted (governing officials for school standards). Real work had to be done, and no way could Assistive Access mode cut it. The morning was fine in this mode, but now I had a lot of work to handle.

I switched back to ‘normal’ mode to get on with a plethora of tasks before the day ended. As much as I like the digital minimalist approach, I know smartphones offer, well, smartness. I could go through my tasks, events, and notes in preparation before I got home where I switched to my MacBook.

Drawbacks of using Assistive Access

Like I mentioned, with only six apps, you have to think carefully about what you choose. My choice was the closest I had to when I used a ‘dumb’ feature phone, as mentioned in a previous post. EDIT: You can add more apps. However, adding more apps would defeat the point of using Assistive Access for a digital minimalist approach. Less is more.

Even if you get messages in other apps like WhatsApp or Signal, you will not be notified of them. I had to pre-warn a few friends they would receive radio silence unless they messaged me through iMessage/SMS.

The trio of productivity, Apple Calendar, Notes and Reminders, worked like a charm to a certain degree. Even their oddly enlarged UI was somewhat user-friendly to operate. Take note: the Apple Calendar icon is not dynamic. It has a permanent date of WED 28. My screenshots were taken on 24th September.

I am uncertain whether this is a bug or not, but I was unable to configure my Twos app. During the process, Assistive Access asked for photo access to Twos. However, the confirm button was greyed out. There was no way of finishing the process with Twos. I settled with Apple Music, instead.

Final thoughts

Assistive Access is a great way to practice digital minimalism when you are feeling overwhelmed with information and distractions.

You will have a limited smartphone experience, but this is a good thing. You can refocus your attention on what truly matters in your life.

I suggest you try this mode if there is not much going on in your life, so you can see appreciate the benefits. In my experience, Assistive Access was not the right choice at a time when I had countless important jobs to do for work.

If you do attempt to use this approach, I would be happy to hear about your experience.

As always, what for you for taking the time to read my post.

Mark @ CodeMacLife

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