App accessibility refers to the concept of building an app in such a way that it is usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, including those who are living with disabilities. While the ADA’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2 standards do not specifically address mobile apps, we think app accessibility is the right thing to do on many levels. Even from a pragmatic perspective, one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, so overlooking app accessibility reduces your potential user base significantly.
What Makes an App Accessible?
The first step in making an app accessible for everyone is a clean, intuitive design that can be easily navigated by users of different abilities. If your interface isn’t easy to use by those who have no impairments, it will be even more of a struggle for those who do. But simply being good at UX/UI isn’t enough. It’s critical that you are consciously designing for relevant types of disabilities – your user profiles ought to take this into account. There are a wide range of potential impairments to consider (e.g. visual, hearing, cognitive or movement limitations), and each will differently affect the way users interact with an app.
For example, visual impairments, ranging from color blindness to low visual acuity and blindness, affect the way users perceive an app’s color scheme, font size, and contrast settings, making it difficult for users to see what the app is displaying. The ability to change the display settings or navigate the app using text-to-speech technology will enable visually-impaired users who would not otherwise be able to interact with the app.
Similarly, hearing-impaired users need alternatives to audio-only features. Subtitles for videos, increased volume, and the ability to mute ambient sound are features that help hearing-impaired users interact with an app.
Movement impairments may increase the difficulty users experience when interacting with small touch targets. Increasing the size of touch targets allows tolerance for error and reduces frustration for many users. Alternately, instead of battling the touch screen, some users chose to navigate the app using voice commands. Such users benefit from explicit labeling conventions for user inputs and an intuitive layout in order to easily command their way through the app.
In addition to the design features, clear instructions users can read, watch, or listen to will broaden an app’s reach and allow users to engage in a way that is most useful for them.
What Does Accessibility Look Like in Practice?
App accessibility in practice is pretty inspiring, and advances in technology are rapidly enabling even more to be possible. There are a number of apps that have been built to aid those with disabilities, and this round-up highlights a few of the most exciting. Equally exciting, but perhaps less common, are mainstream apps that are built with features that make the app usable by people with and without physical or cognitive limitations.
We recently improved visual accessibility for users of the Empath app, an app built to enable people to share their feelings in a safe environment. Empath features a feed where users post and read updates about how others are doing. The initial build of the app was not dynamic, and all users were forced to read the smaller fonts typically displayed. To broaden app accessibility, we implemented Apple’s Dynamic Type in critical parts of the app. Dynamic Type allows users to indicate their preferred reading size (within a range). Apps that support Dynamic Type then adjust to the preferred reading size automatically. People with disabilities and those who require larger print as they age benefit from this feature.
Adding Dynamic Type was not simply a developer effort, but also a design one – our designers had to consider ways in which other elements on the screen would dynamically change so that the app looked beautiful and functioned well, regardless of what size type was employed.
Facebook is also leading the way on incorporating and developing accessibility features. They have numerous initiatives, including one around object detection and identification in images. This fairly complicated multi-stage process uses machine vision systems and deep convolutional neural networks to detect, delineate, and classify items within a photo. The collection of images below shows the output of their object detection system, where a variety of salient objects within different images have been identified and labeled:
When this initiative comes to fruition, it will have a number of applications, including some for those who are visually impaired. As noted in their post on the subject, “People with vision loss, too, will be able to understand what is in a photo their friends share because the system will be able to tell them, regardless of the caption posted alongside the image… Currently, visually impaired users browsing photos on Facebook only hear the name of the person who shared the photo, followed by the term “photo,” when they come upon an image in their News Feed. Instead we aim to offer richer descriptions, such as ‘Photo contains beach, trees, and three smiling people.’”
What Resources Exist to Develop for App Accessibility?
We strongly encourage clients to build accessible apps, and work hard to make sure doing so is affordable. There are thankfully a number of resources now available to support implementation. On the web, the Web Accessibility Initiative “brings together individuals and organizations from around the world to develop strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities.”
- Apple’s VoiceOver. Developers can integrate VoiceOver in an app to change the way taps and swipes are interpreted by the system to augment usability for those who cannot see.
- The Accessibility Inspector for iOS, which runs through the app to find common accessibility issues and provides a live preview of all accessibility elements within the app.
- Apple’s Dynamic Type. As noted above, it allows users to specify their preferred font size for apps that support Dynamic Type. In the latest version of their OS, iOS 11, Apple makes it possible for developers to support this feature even if custom fonts are being employed.
- Google’s TalkBack is a built-in screen reader for Android devices. When TalkBack is on, users can interact with their device without seeing the screen.
- Switch Access from Google lets motor-impaired users interact with Android devices using a switch (like an external keyboard or buttons) instead of the touch screen.
There are quite a few features beyond these that can be leveraged to make an app accessible, and we expect more will follow. While we have focused on how these features can benefit those with disabilities, many benefit all users. The ability to navigate an app using voice commands is useful for a user with their hands full. Watching a video with subtitles is a perfect alternative when people are somewhere they can’t play audio, and large touch targets are just easier for everyone. The more people who can easily access, navigate, and engage with an app, the more successful it will be.
If you’re interested in adding app accessibility features to an app you’ve built, please get in touch!