design · Clock7 min · 28 Dec 2021

Why App Accessibility is a Must in Mobile Development

Galina Yatsuk

Galina Yatsuk

UI/UX Designer

mobile app accessibility guidelines
Illustration by Amir Kerr

Have you ever broken your arm? I recently injured my pinky finger, and I was actually surprised by how often I use it in my day-to-day life. Sometimes we can’t imagine, or we don’t even think about, what our life would be like if we physically were not the same as we are now. Just like my injured finger; I would never have thought I need it every time I hold my phone.

And there are other examples where people can’t hold their devices or use the Internet, not only because of physical disabilities but also because of cognitive or environmental issues.

So What is Accessibility?

Accessibility is the design of products for people with disabilities. When we talk about mobile apps, these disabilities could be visual, hearing, physical, and mobility related. These disabilities are not always permanent: they could be a broken arm, temporary blindness because of bright sun, etc. Here I will explain why it is so important to think of those users who may have difficulty using your app because of a disability.

Let’s Talk About Some Stats About Website Usability

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 2 billion people live with a disability, 20% of whom live with great functional difficulties in their day-to-day lives. And among those 2 billion people in the world, as reported by U.S. Census Bureau, at least 40 million live in the United States. 

While ¾ of Americans with disabilities use the Internet daily, this share rises to 87% among those who do not have a disability. That’s a significant difference, don’t you think?

To decrease this gap, there regularly appear new features and tools that help improve the accessibility of online experience for the disabled. One example is a search engine that helps those with disabilities find websites that are accessible to them. Just think of it. People with disabilities have to search for accessible websites so that they can reach resources on the Internet. This means they not only have a limited amount of resources, but they also have to add an additional step between the desire to find something and actually finding it.

Talking about websites, I should mention that there are various ground rules, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), that govern the standards of web content accessibility.

Unfortunately, they are frequently ignored. Take a look at these facts: WebAIM detected WCAG 2 failures on the vast majority of home pages (more than 98%), with the most common problem (86.3%) being websites that have low contrast. Even specific tech doesn’t help those with disabilities, as according to data from AbilityNet, the disabled can’t access 9 in 10 websites when using assistive technologies. 

Taking a broader perspective, just a few websites target disabled people. The study carried out by WebAIM in 2020 found that only 2% out of the best one million websites worldwide try to appeal to users with disabilities. It’s no surprise that the majority of web pages aren’t fully accessible for the disabled. These site owners are missing out on the 70% of disabled users who won’t tolerate the lack of a user-friendly interface. These users are abandoning unfriendly websites, which may increase the bounce rate and negatively affect organic ranking. 

wcag failures (1).png

So, having an accessible website works for both sides: users, obviously, have the possibility of getting information from the accessible site, while business owners avoid losing a great number of users. 

Going Back to Mobile Apps

Although there is no WCAG analog for mobile applications, developers may still face legal problems because of inaccessible native apps. The situation is going to escalate as mobile applications continue to gain popularity.

“As app designers and developers, we have the great responsibility to include accessibility best practices by default in all that we do,” points out Scott Vinkle, Platform Accessibility Specialist at Shopify. 

I've already mentioned that creating an accessible website will help you reach a larger number of users; the same rule applies to mobile apps. People use their mobile devices every day. According to stats surrounding mobile traffic vs. desktop traffic in 2021, most internet traffic, 48.88%, comes from desktop devices, while 47.59% comes from smartphones. The difference is not very significant, so it’s crucially important to develop both accessible websites and mobile apps.

By developing a mobile application with accessibility in mind, you will be able to provide a good user experience to everyone. Accessibility comes with a wide array of potential financial, moral, and legal benefits. A satisfied customer who can easily navigate around your app is, first of all, a brand ambassador. They will be likely to leave a good review that will attract more new users and increase the number of downloads. What’s more, the better the user experience you provide, the better the brand reputation and higher loyalty you will have.

So, what should we keep in mind?

Vision and Color

Based on medical stats, 8% of men and 0.5% of women are colorblind! That’s almost 10 out of every 100 of your users who are likely to be just colorblind — let alone have other vision impairments. 

The main problem here is that many designers try to make accents with colors, but they forget about people who can’t or can only slightly distinguish the colors. That’s why there should always be an option to show the user what to do in case they can’t see what is green and what is red. A perfect way to keep that in mind is to remember this meme:

meme.png

To improve color accents, consider using icons and patterns, adding text labels, and, of course, adjusting the contrast. The last point is relevant for everyone, not only those with visual disabilities. Don’t forget about the specifics of mobile devices: since they are often used outdoors, users may need better contrast to have good visibility even if the sun is too bright and causes screen glare. On top of the benefits of good contrast for all users, bad contrast can compound the challenges that people with reduced vision have when accessing content on mobile devices.

The app should be not only beautiful but accessible.

3.8 million Americans aged 21–64 are blind or have trouble seeing, even if they are wearing glasses. That’s why you should consider providing your app users with audio help like Netflix provides audio descriptions of their TV shows and movies. Audio descriptions give detailed explanations of what is happening on the screen, allowing users to know about facial expressions and any movements or changes in a scene.

 

Text and Font

I recently jumped into some interesting research held in the Netherlands. It says that 43% of people surveyed use one or more accessibility settings on their phones. And guess what, the most common user setting is adjusting text size (32.62%).

settings (1).png

Those with a visual impairment often use the accessibility feature to increase the text size. This means that less information than usual is displayed on the screen, so users see less content at once and need to scroll down to read the entire text. 

Apple's Human Interface Guidelines even have recommendations about working with text in apps. I think what’s most interesting is that they recommend automatically increasing the size of glyphs (icons) used near text.

Audio and Sound

A hearing disability is a huge problem that is going to escalate with time. While today 466+ million people suffer from the problem globally, according to findings by the World Health Organization (WHO), the number is expected to reach 900 million by 2055. Even more are at risk of hearing loss: 1.1 billion people aged 12–35. All these are the result of high exposure to noisy environments.

Give the users an option to choose whether they want to read your instructions or to hear them. That’s how you will know that the message was delivered to each user in the best way possible.

In 2019, Google introduced two apps to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people: Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier. Live Transcribe takes real-world speech and turns it into real-time captions using just the phone’s microphone, and Sound Amplifier is used to filter, augment, and amplify the sounds in the environment by increasing quiet sounds while not overboosting loud ones.

Mobility

We all know about Siri and other similar assistants in our mobile phones, but do we really understand their real benefit? I personally use Siri when I'm too lazy to go to Contacts to find a number or when it’s too cold outside to pull off my gloves. But the real great benefit of Siri is for people with mobility disabilities: they can send messages, make phone calls, schedule meetings, etc. using Siri. That’s a great example of an accessible mobile app. 

Talking about how mobile apps should keep in mind mobility disabilities, we should mention the dictation option. This is included in the majority of keyboards, but please don’t ignore it, and try not to create any difficulties in the app by adding unnecessary movements or inconvenient buttons that would interfere with dictating.

Different Levels of Literacy And Many Different Languages

Although the English language is considered to dominate the world and the web, there are many people who don’t speak or even understand it. In India, there are 22 official languages that are spoken by approximately a million people each. But what about the ¼ of the population that isn’t literate at all? For people with disabilities, the literacy rate is even lower. When these users open your app, they may rely on symbols and pictures, potentially with accessibility aids. What should we do about that? If text can’t be avoided, focus on simplicity: short and easy-to-understand phrases, no jargon, and graphical cues for the nonliterate or those with cognitive disabilities. It’s also a good idea to avoid typing as much as possible.

Summing up

Accessibility in mobile app development allows users of different abilities to understand, navigate, and use tech products. Often, features designed to improve the experience for people with disabilities are adopted by a wide variety of people. This means that taking into account all listed types of disabilities while designing a mobile app isn’t an obstacle, but rather, it’s a way to create a better user experience for as many users as possible.

Accessibility is about understanding people’s needs and making yourself open to worlds unlike yours. If there is an opportunity to build ethical and inclusive products, why don’t we use it?

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