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Accessibility Is Becoming More Crucial in Mobile App Development

Which aspects of app accessibility are required, and which are recommended? Here's everything you need to make your app accessible.

Does Your App Need to Be Accessible?

Your app may be perfect, but is it perfect for everyone? Accessibility is one of the most important factors to consider when developing the new #1 on iOS and Android. You want as many people to be able to access and enjoy your app as possible to maximize profits. This requires making sure it is easy to use for people with different abilities.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodation. There is currently no legal determination on whether a website or app is considered a “place” of public accommodation. But that doesn't mean that it's not in the developer's best interest to create an inclusive piece of technology. According to Lewis Wiener, a member of the Washington D.C. Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs board, and an appellate attorney at Eversheds Sutherland, there is no need to wait on a critical mass of competitors adopting these practices. "Although there are no laws requiring all apps to be accessible to all, it doesn't mean it's not a good idea,” he says. “It just depends on what kind of company you want to be."

Why Should You Care?

There are approximately 57 million Americans living with disabilities today. That's a pretty sizeable amount of users who might have difficulty using your app if their accessibility is not considered in the making.

Currently, accessibility practices, as outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, are just that — guidelines. At this year’s Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, there was a strong push for third-party developers to support Dynamic Text if they don’t already. In other words, it’s a suggested practice. But do you want to be the type of company that is waiting on a legal imperative to be compliant, or do you want to be a company that is inclusive and progressive? It's up to you.

We can’t say whether the tipping point for accessibility will be a legal ruling on the ADA or a changing business environment (for example, app stores penalizing apps that are noncompliant). In short, you have nothing to lose by designing for accessibility now. In fact, you’ll broaden your user base — up to 15.3% of the general population experience some kind of hearing impairment and 9.4% experience visual impairment.

Who Are You Making Your App Accessible For?  

The Web Accessibility Initiative has provided a set of  scenarios to consider when developing an app or website:

  • Users may not be able to see, hear, move, or may not be able to process some types of information easily or at all.
  • They may have difficulty reading or comprehending text.
  • Users may not have or be able to use a keyboard or mouse.
  • They may have a text-only screen, a small screen, or a slow internet connection.
  • Users may not speak or understand the language in which the document is written.
  • They may be in a situation where their eyes, ears, or hands are busy or interfered with (e.g., driving to work, working in a loud environment, etc.).
  • Users may have an early version of a browser, a different browser entirely, a voice browser, or a different operating system.

You need to consider all these items while balancing the demands of your role as a designer and developer. Think about how a slow internet connection ruins your experience using an app. Pure agony, right? Now imagine the way a poorly designed color scheme would affect the experience of someone with color blindness every time they use your product. Many apps are difficult to navigate and cumbersome to learn even without constraints on the user end. When you create user personas, are you including someone with visual impairments?

"Although there are no laws requiring all apps to be accessible to all, it doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It just depends on what kind of company you want to be."
— Lewis Wiener, J.D.

What Elements Go Into Accessibility?

To be clear, there is a difference between an app made specifically to help people with disabilities and an accessible app. BeMyEyes is an example of an app that aids in accessibility. The app that allows visually impaired people to call seeing people and get help with small tasks. Tecla Access turns your iPad or iPhone into a hands-free device controlled by motions like blinking or blowing, or by the controls on your wheelchair. Typically, we refer to these as "assistive" technologies.

An app that is easy to navigate, read, and absorb information from, no matter the medium, is an accessible app. Every app in the world falls under this umbrella. If the app is not designed for a group of people, who is it excluding?

A Basic Accessibility Checklist 

An app that is accessible (condensed, via WCAG):

Provides text alternatives for any non-text content

  • Not everyone will be able to see photos, gifs, and videos due to hearing impairment or a text only interface. People who rely on text-to-speech voice technology should be able to get the full experience of an app's content.

Provides alternatives for time-based media

  • Video and audio should have synced up captions so all users have equal access to content.

Includes content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure

  • Content should be arranged such that users can change the formatting of the page without losing information.
App-accessibility-important-accessible-technology
Users should be able to hold the phone comfortably without losing information onscreen.

Is easy to see and hear

  • This includes separating foreground from background and making sure colors used are readable by users with color blindness.
accessibility-in-app
The Candy Crush interface is designed in a way that makes it possible for people with color blindness to operate the app.

Permits sufficient time to read and use content

  • Users should be given the time to read over the material, or have material dictated to them without a web page timing out and losing their spot on line.

Is not designed in a way that is known to cause seizures

  • There are no flashing lights or alternating color backgrounds, or there is an option to turn these settings off.

Includes ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are

  • A key factor is making sure buttons and links are not only differentiated from other text by color, but also by noncolor related characteristics like bold or underlined font. 

Includes text content that is readable and understandable

app accessibility is it required and checklist
WCAG recommends strong brightness-contrast and larger font sizes.
  • Users with cognitive limitations may become confused if components appear in different places on different pages. For example, if the page is magnified, the formatting should remain the same.

Help users avoid and correct mistakes

  • Users with certain disabilities might not be able to interpret error indication methods because of a limited field of view, limited color perception, or use of assistive technology. All errors are reversible.

Is compatible with current and future user agents, including assistive web technologies.

  • The purpose of this guideline is to support compatibility with current and future user agents, especially assistive technologies (AT). This is done both by 1) ensuring that authors do not do things that would break AT (e.g., poorly formed markup) or circumvent AT (e.g., by using unconventional markup or code) and 2) exposing information in the content in standard ways that assistive technologies can recognize and interact with.

For a more in-depth checklist, visit the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

You are not required to hit all of these checkpoints, but it is in your best interest. Web accessibility is an issue that surfaces once in a while, but it's worth noting that Target paid $10 million in damages on a class action suit by the National Federation of the Blind for an inaccessible website. The aging population is predicted to triple to 1.5 billion people by 2050. That's a lot of people who won't be able to operate technology as well as they used to, who will have grown pretty accustomed to using their phones.

Every user can benefit from apps that abide by the accessibility guidelines. In the long term, a wider potential user base will make your app more competitive and more likely to succeed. Laws and requirements for apps could change at any moment. You have the opportunity to be ahead of the pack.

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