Hand holding a stylus designing mobile wireframes on a tablet
Sam Cranwell
Sam Cranwell
20th Apr 2021

Mobile app accessibility: why it's important and what you can do about it

If accessibility has been an after-thought in your mobile app’s design and development process, this article is for you. With multiple countries enforcing accessibility laws and regulations to ensure business online also serve disabled and impaired users, accessibility should be on your priority list. Even without the risk of breaking rules and regulations, 15% of the world’s population has a form of disability. If your mobile app is adding hurdles and obstructions to the way these users interact with your app, then it requires improvements. To get the ball rolling, we’ve detailed a few key areas and factors where accessibility should be a key consideration for your design and development team. But let’s start at the beginning: outside of the regulations, what’s all the fuss about?

What is accessibility and why is it important?

Accessibility refers to making your digital solution friendly for disabled and impaired users. In the UK there are enforceable laws on public sector websites and apps, however when it comes to commercial businesses, a simple ‘reasonable adjustment’ is enough to cater for accessibility. But does this mean you should only do the bare minimum?

Every app owner has a responsibility to treat all of their users equally. Accessibility isn’t a tick-box exercise. Without it, disabled and impaired users can’t use or engage with your app. By implementing the bare minimum, or nothing at all, you'll instantly lose out on a portion of the market and make someone’s life harder than it needs to be.

Our phones have become intertwined with everyday actions; looking for love on dating apps; searching for jobs on recruitment apps; connecting with friends on social media apps. Imagine having access to these apps but not being able to use them because they lack the correct functionality? Simply put, all apps should be accessible to everyone.

Which disabilities and impairments should you design for?

The real answer is all of them. You should be designing and developing your mobile app with everyone in mind. Your users may be visually-impaired, deaf or have motor or dexterity impairments. Equally, users of an older demographic could struggle with an app that isn’t designed to be accessible. Have you ever considered dyslexic individuals when writing your content? Long, verbose copy can become a minefield if you haven’t thought about all users when creating written content.

How can I implement accessibility for all users?

Although it may sound like a hard task, designing and developing with accessibility as a priority makes things simpler in the long run. In Apple’s iOS Accessibility Guidelines, they advocate simplicity. They state that apps should be “Enabling familiar, consistent interactions that make complex tasks simple and straightforward to perform”.

For this reason, user experience (UX) and accessibility should be considered throughout all stages of a mobile app’s development. The simpler your app is to engage with features, clickable areas and content, the easier it’ll be for all users to interact with it.

Mobile app aesthetics

When it comes to your mobile app’s aesthetics, the onus will sit on your design and UX teams to make sure contrasts, spacing and colour palettes promote accessibility. Accommodating visually-impaired users can mean harsher colour contrasts, such as text and background colours on a button. This provides a great opportunity for designers to get creative and break the mould, creating unique designs that work for all users in the process.

A key element that is easily missed, for example, is touch targets (areas that users can interact with). In an app, when you tap the text on a button, there’s an area around the text that can also be tapped. Whether you tap the text itself or just outside it, the action you’re trying to complete should work. If the tappable area around the text isn’t big enough, users with low vision and motor impairments might struggle to complete the action. To guide you on what touch target size is correct for your interactive areas, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have written a dedicated section.

Predictable UX

Make sure elements of your app, like the navigation, navigation structure, search bar, ‘back’ button and home button (which should be your logo), are consistently in the same place. For users who are visually-impaired or have disabilities like dyslexia, knowing that a certain button is going to appear in the same place, regardless of where they are on the app, makes it easier to navigate. Equally, for users who use text-to-speech readers, changing where things are across the app can make the experience confusing, creating unnecessary hurdles for your users to overcome.

The more familiar an app feels, the easier your users can navigate it, regardless of their ability level. The whole point of UX is to make the user journey and target action as easy and accessible as possible.

Accessible features

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make your app accessible. The main thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the user. If you’re visually-impaired or have low vision, you won’t be able to view the app in the same way as a user with standard vision. So how can you accommodate the visually-impaired user? By structuring your app in a logical way and providing information like alt text you cater for text-to-speech readers and audio-aid based assistance. Provide enough data so that smart readers can accurately convey the in-app information, but be careful not to overdo it otherwise you could end up overwhelming your users.

To accommodate deaf users, captions should be included on all videos or media with an auditory element. For individuals with motor or dexterity impairments, gestures and haptic feedback can make or break an experience. Make sure gestures are simple and easy to complete, and implement haptic feedback that provides accurate responses to the user’s interactions.

Testing

Keep in mind that users who are impaired or disabled will have regular patterns and behaviours they use to navigate apps. If you complete your app testing with a group of standard users, you won’t be getting contextual feedback on the accessibility features. Equally, accommodating what you think is an accessible feature, doesn’t always work in practice. In a study, developers worked on text dictation for visually-impaired users. The results found that “developers considered how they expected to hear the text and not how visually impaired users comprehend screen readers” (C. Vendome et al, 2019). This meant that “five-hundred fifty-five” from a phone number was read as “five-five-five”.

To ensure your app is hitting the mark for accessibility, be sure to ask disabled and impaired individuals to test the app for themselves. This will provide you with accurate insights that can highlight and improve your app’s accessibility features.

Accessibility isn’t a nice-to-have

The most important consideration is not how these features can benefit your app, rather how they can benefit the people that actually need them. If you want thorough guidance on how to optimise your mobile app for accessibility, you can read through Apple’s iOS app accessibility guidelines, Android’s app accessibility guidelines and WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0) to get to grips with best practices.

We believe user experience should equate to equal access, so we consider accessibility during every stage of our projects. If you’d like advice on how your mobile app can better serve disabled and impaired users, or you want support with the creation of a new mobile app, get in touch!

 

Sources:

C. Vendome, D. Solano, S. Liñán and M. Linares-Vásquez, "Can Everyone use my app? An Empirical Study on Accessibility in Android Apps," 2019 IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance and Evolution (ICSME), Cleveland, OH, USA, 2019, pp. 41-52, doi: 10.1109/ICSME.2019.00014.

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