Unblocking the power of Android: Google's Action Blocks

Help relatives and friends unlock the power of their Android phones using Google's Action Blocks.

Action Blocks is an App from the Google Play Store that allows you to set them up for a specific function or task that is accessible from the home screen and actioned with a single tap.  

It also offers a way to interact with the in-built voice assistant but without the need to remember commands or gestures or the need to be understood by speech recognition.

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Google's Action Blocks are useful for people with dexterity impairments because you can resize individual buttons from a tile that takes up the same amount of screen space as four icons (about a quarter of the screen on a smartphone) to something that can cover the majority of the screen itself.

This presents a much larger target than the default icons and is far less likely to be accidentally dragged off the screen and lost.

Why should I use Action Blocks?

Buttons and tiles are customisable, so you can include a picture that illustrates the action. There are a number of possible applications, for example, you could set a picture of a glowing lightbulb on one button to turn the lights on and a picture of a dark bulb on another to turn them off (your lights will need to be smart lights, to do this). 

You can also do things like use a photograph of a person on a button that will dial that person's number.

Read how one of our volunteers set up a smart solution for a woman with MS

Or how about a picture of a radio on the button that opens up the BBC sound app and the stream of a person's favourite radio station?

Tapping a picture of a recognisable item makes a link with a service despite the change in how the person accesses the service. 

How do I set up Action Blocks?

A smartphone screen showing 4 simple action blocks with corresponding pictures including the face of a person and the action 'call my daughter'Setting up an action requires that you are reasonably comfortable with using a smartphone or tablet and most use cases assume that you will therefore be a person setting up the Action Blocks on behalf of someone who is struggling. 

When you first set up an Action Block, you are given a series of suggested actions, common tasks you might want to do with your phone; send a message, make a call, play music, set an alarm or a reminder, or get directions. You can also control connected lights or heating. 

The selection the app suggests are common actions, but you can create an Action Block to carry out any action on your smartphone or tablet that you could trigger with a voice command. It's best to stick with simple commands like "turn on the hall light" as more complicated sequences tend to be a bit more hit-and-miss, but you can experiment with what works.

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Setting up the action itself can be done by voice or typed and you can then test out the action to check it works before moving to the next stage.

When you test the action, your command will be read out in a fairly fast, robotic voice as it is this that triggers the action using the voice-based Google Assistant, but you can switch this off as soon as you’re happy the command is doing what you want it to. 

You can then select a picture for the button. This is particularly useful for people who may struggle to remember symbols or associate concepts; a picture of someone that will trigger the action to call that person is a simpler concept than learning how to search and navigate a contacts list. It also requires far less dexterity than attempting to dial a number using an on-screen number pad. 

It's also a simple reassurance should a person find themselves in a stressful or distressing situation, that they can go to this simple action, or hand their phone to someone else who will be able to see this action clearly.

Get Action Blocks to Read Aloud

As well as the use cases above, Action Blocks can turn your smartphone or tablet into a simple AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) device where buttons can be assigned words or phrases that can be read out-loud when pressed. You have a choice of a male or female-sounding voice, but both have American accents. The list of default phrases is:

  • “Hello, my name is...” (which can be edited to include a name)
  • “Excuse me, I have something to say”
  • “Please help me”
  • “Yes”
  • “No”

You can also create a ‘custom phrase’, to say anything you would like and the phrase can then be assigned a picture and a name. This is useful for anyone non-verbal or for anyone who may struggle to articulate themselves. For example, you could set up a phrase to ask for a return bus ticket to the town centre or set up a button to explain your condition or barrier to a stranger, should you wish to.

The Android Accessibility Help has more information on Action Blocks.

How AbilityNet can Help

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