Mobile Accessibility: How to Create Accessible Mobile Apps

Our daily lives are deeply intertwined with mobile devices, using them for everything from navigating our way to conducting virtual meetings. Despite the extensive benefits these devices provide in our everyday lives, people with disabilities frequently encounter numerous challenges related to usability and accessibility when using mobile applications. Issues arise when websites and mobile applications lack the necessary accessibility features to enhance user experience. By developing accessible apps, we can alleviate this issue and ensure a seamless digital experience for all users, regardless of their abilities.

In this article, we’re going to delve into the concept of mobile accessibility, its significance, and ways businesses can seamlessly integrate it into their product development strategy.

What is mobile accessibility?

Mobile accessibility is the practice of designing and developing mobile apps and websites to make them accessible to users with disabilities. Mobile accessibility aims to provide an equal experience to all users by removing all accessibility barriers.

Most websites today are optimized for mobile, meaning they are coded to provide a user experience on mobile that is comparable to viewing the site on a desktop. However, mobile versions of websites may not be developed with accessibility in mind. The same goes for applications. While an application may provide an accessible experience on a desktop, there may be other accessibility challenges unique to mobile.

Some attributes of mobile devices can create inaccessibility, such as:

  • Small screen sizes: Small screen sizes can be challenging, especially for people with visual impairments.
  • 3D touch and pressure sensors: 3D touch and pressure sensors add a whole new layer to user interaction. These innovative features can become barriers for users with hand tremors or reduced touch sensitivity.
  • Screens that may be hard to read in sunlight: Reading a mobile screen in direct sunlight is challenging for anyone but is significantly more so for people with low vision.

What devices does mobile accessibility cover?

Mobile devices include more than smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches. The category is much wider, encompassing a range of devices and the apps that allow us to interact with them. Mobile devices also include:

  • Portable video gaming systems
  • Digital TVs
  • Wearables such as fitness trackers
  • GPS devices, such as Garmin
  • Car and airplane seatback interfaces
  • Devices in household appliances
  • Devices that fall within the “Internet of Things”

Building mobile devices or the software that powers them comes with the responsibility to ensure usability and accessibility.

Now, let’s dive into what it takes to comply with mobile accessibility standards.

Legal Requirements and Guidelines for Mobile Apps

The legal requirements and guidelines for mobile app accessibility vary depending on the country and jurisdiction. In the United States, for example, mobile app accessibility is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. These laws require that mobile apps, along with other digital platforms, be accessible to individuals with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in places of public accommodation, which includes websites and mobile apps. Section 508 applies specifically to federal agencies and requires them to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

In addition to legal requirements, there are also guidelines provided by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that offer recommendations for mobile app accessibility. The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a set of internationally recognized standards for making web content accessible. These guidelines can also be applied to mobile apps. The WCAG covers various aspects of accessibility, including perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust design principles. By following these guidelines, app developers can ensure that their apps are accessible to a wide range of users with disabilities.

How to Ensure Your Mobile Applications Are Accessible

Achieving mobile accessibility is best done by first assessing your mobile apps. Mobile application accessibility ensures the app supports the device’s operating system and applications, such as enabling larger text and screen readers. The best practice is to incorporate accessibility testing early and often in your software development cycle (learn more below on that process). If you have existing products that you’re not sure meet those standards, however, accessibility testing for mobile apps is the best way to assess whether your current products can be used by everyone.

Mobile accessibility testing should be done both with software and manually. These tests include:

  • Screen reader testing – A screen reader is software used by blind users. Observing how the screen reader software interacts with a mobile site is an effective way for developers and designers to identify any barriers or issues that may prevent users from accessing and navigating content effectively.
  • Mobile accessibility checker or scanner – This software tool assesses a sampling of your website pages (including mobile pages) for accessibility issues. The sample shows what needs to be fixed on the selected pages and where you likely have problems on other pages.
  • Color contrast testsColor contrast testing tools for websites and mobile apps help you determine the legibility of text and the contrast of visual elements, such as graphical controls and visual indicators.
  • Usability testingUsability testing puts your application in the hands of people with disabilities. It helps you assess the overall user experience, how easy it is to complete a task, and identify problems users encounter that could be addressed through design changes.

Apple vs. Android accessibility

The two largest mobile app marketplaces, the Apple App Store and Google Play for Android, both offer resources for developers to create accessible mobile applications. Apple offers a number of features for iOS accessibility. These include tools like the VoiceOver screen reader for people with vision impairment, and Assistive Access, which helps make apps more accessible for people with cognitive disabilities.

Android also offers extensive design, development, and marketing resources for creating mobile apps, such as checklists and tests that define a comprehensive set of quality requirements for most types of Android apps.

These resources are a good starting point, but they won’t make your app accessible all by themselves. Designing for accessibility from the ground up ensures you create an app that is truly inclusive.

How to Incorporate Accessibility Testing into App Development

The best approach for accessibility starts at the earliest development stages. Incorporating accessibility processes before a product’s release is more than efficient: it’s economical. Below, we’ll delve into strategies to integrate mobile accessibility throughout your design and development stages.

Accessibility Training

Multi-discipline accessibility training equips various teams with strategies and criteria for designing accessible mobile apps. Design and development teams should be educated on accessibility guidelines such as WCAG 2.1 so they can understand the best practices and requirements.

Start with Design

Prior to your app’s development, it’s crucial to integrate accessibility features from the initial design stages. Pay close attention to aspects such as color contrast, font dimensions, and layout spacing to ensure that your content is accessible. Additionally, make sure that all controls and buttons are appropriately labeled for seamless integration with screen reader technology.

Use Responsive Design for Resizing

Ensure your application allows users to modify the text size according to their preferences. By using a responsive design approach in development, your app can adapt its layout depending on the size and orientation of the user’s device and a user’s specific needs. When a user chooses to increase the font size, elements within your app should adjust accordingly to maintain a coherent and user-friendly interface. By incorporating responsive design strategies, you can help guarantee that an increase in font size doesn’t compromise the layout and content of the app.

Integrate Accessibility into Development

Once your app is in development, the team should have a clear set of criteria to follow for an accessible final product. A good starting point would be establishing a checklist to address essential factors to build an app that integrates seamlessly with assistive technologies like screen readers, employs alternative text for all images included, and strictly adheres to accessible design guidelines.

Implement Effective Testing Techniques

Before launch, development teams usually put their applications through rigorous scrutiny to measure usability, function, and security. Though developer testing tools are beneficial, enlisting the aid of people with disabilities for user testing is one of the most effective methods for achieving app accessibility. Including people with disabilities in testing processes helps pinpoint accessibility hurdles so you can rectify them before the app launches. Even more, teaming up with accessibility experts significantly increases an app’s compliance and user-friendliness.

When Should You Test for Mobile Accessibility, Before or After Launch?

In today’s fast-paced technological landscape, it’s vital for organizations to be agile. Creating mobile experiences that are usable by all, regardless of ability, should be the goal. When should your team test for mobile accessibility? Before or after the app has been launched?

As outlined in the ROI of accessibility, when your team shifts accessibility testing left and considers the design and development of inclusive experiences, your team, and your users will benefit. For businesses without expansive IT and DevOps teams on hand, enlisting the support of third-party vendors to manage, review, and provide guidance on how to fix accessibility bugs, can offer a more efficient way to ensure new mobile apps are accessible and usable out of the gate.

Teams that review their mobile apps for accessibility after launch will find that the cost of remediating accessibility bugs increases exponentially and slows down their teams’ productivity. If your app is live, you can engage a third-party vendor to conduct a UX design review and create a strategy to remediate the accessibility bugs discovered during the review.

The good news is there is a lot your team can do to review your apps accessibility with a native mobile device. Check out our on-demand mobile accessibility testing webinar and learn how to create accessible mobile apps that meet requirements and exceed user expectations.

Categories: Accessibility Strategy, World of Accessibility
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