Tackling mobile app accessibility

When it comes to apps and mobile engineering, ignoring people with disabilities can mean alienating 15% of your potential user base. In this article, learn about tangible solutions to address mobile app accessibility.

As reported by the World Health Organization, 15% of the world’s population is affected by a disability. When it comes to apps and mobile engineering, ignoring people with disabilities can mean alienating 15% of your potential user base. That’s where mobile app accessibility and inclusive design enter the picture. With app accessibility and the adoption of an accessibility-first approach to app development, you can incorporate features to help more people use your app — regardless of disabilities. In a session at the Mobile DevOps Summit by Bitrise, I talked to Aleksandra Kulbaka about how to incorporate accessibility into mobile app development.

Aleksandra is a Master's Student at the University of Oxford with experience in front-end app development. She is making waves in the accessibility world due to her creation of the Mobile App Accessibility Calculator; a Google Sheets tool to help mobile engineers assess the accessibility of their app. It translates web-specific accessibility guidelines, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, into a mobile-friendly approach to accessibility. Using the Mobile App Accessibility Calculator helps mobile engineers make their apps more accessible by identifying areas of improvement. 

How to make your mobile app accessible

There are several factors that can make your app more accessible to people with disabilities, as  Aleksandra shared at the Mobile DevOps Summit. When developing your app, remember that there are many forms of disabilities that prevent someone from using an app. Some users have physical disabilities, some users may experience temporary or situational disabilities, whilst some may even be unable to touch the screen.

💡Tip: to better understand disabilities and how different people might use your app, check out Cards for Humanity — this online tool gives you two cards, one for a person and one for a trait. Your job is to figure out how to make an app that meets their user needs.

Adjusting text and readability

To start with mobile app accessibility, Aleksandra suggests beginning with the text. Building functionality to allow users to change font size, contrast (like dark mode), text spacing, and more helps users with disabilities navigate through a mobile app.

For example, PDF Viewer is a program that has a mobile and desktop app and they reported that 27% of their users set their text size to a non-default text size, with most of them opting for the L (large) font option. 

In other words, the ability to adjust font translates to real-world impact for your users.

Other accessibility text-based features to consider building include:

  • Text spacing, size, and colour options
  • Contrast options, like dark and light mode
  • Text-to-speech ability
  • Video captions and audio transcriptions
  • Dynamic text for iOS apps

Adding these accessibility features can help make your mobile app more accessible to people with physical and temporary disabilities.

Using accessibility labels

In addition to the above-mentioned text-based accessibility features, accessibility labels are another way to make your app more accessible. Accessibility labels are text labels that describe various components of your app, such as buttons, drop-down menus, and more. 

According to Aleksandra’s recommendations, accessibility labels should be short and to the point. They should succinctly describe the form control or component — being descriptive enough without making the label too long. For example, when adding an accessibility label to a purchase button, do add a “purchase button” accessibility label but don’t feel the need to describe the colour, size, or shape of the button.

How to make your app more accessible to under-represented communities with inclusive design

Inclusive design is the methodology and process behind designing for a wide audience, while particularly considering traditionally underrepresented communities. In mobile app terms, inclusive design means creating app functionality and design that is accessible to as many people as possible.

Inclusive design methodology extends to many aspects of app design and development. The way a user in America uses your app may differ from how a user from Europe interacts with it. An older woman of colour might view your app differently than a younger white man. Therefore, creating an inclusively-designed app involves considering how everyone might use your app.

For example, making your app accessible in multiple languages opens your potential user base to an audience that doesn’t speak English as their primary language. Or, adding a non-binary or ”prefer not to say” gender option helps make your app more usable for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Inclusive design guidelines for mobile apps

Accessibility guidelines, such as Apple’s Developer resources for accessibility or the Android accessibility guidelines, are more widely-known and referenced than inclusive design guidelines. It’s so far behind in comparison, in fact, that there are no official Android guidelines for inclusive design.

Apple includes inclusivity as a pillar in its foundations of developer design. Within it, they give the following advice:

  • Refer to people with non-gender conforming language, such as “you” and “we”, or referring to your audience as “users”
  • Consider your tone and wording. For example, is your wording too academic or technical for your audience as a whole?
  • Avoid stereotypes and colloquial expressions. Stereotyping and colloquialisms can stem from oppressive contexts. For example, phrases like “the peanut gallery” and “mumbo jumbo” come from oppressive history.

They also suggest taking a “people-first approach” to design, copy, and app development. Taking a people-first approach helps to avoid making assumptions in design that could limit your userbase.

Tackling mobile app accessibility should be at the core of app development and design

Mobile app accessibility should be at the forefront of app development conversations — at all stages of the development process. The future of mobile, technology, and society call for more accessible mobile apps for all users. Building truly accessible mobile apps requires thinking about accessible features from the planning stage and taking a people-first approach to design.

And, to ensure accessibility, it also requires continuous evaluation of app accessibility — not just for every new feature rollout, but on a regular basis to maintain an accessibility-first mindset. Accessibility and inclusive design need to be incorporated into the culture of mobile app development to create a better app experience for the 15% of people with disabilities.

To watch the session on demand, head over to the Mobile DevOps Summit website to register for the on-demand content.

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