Planning for the future: simple steps to boost your mobile app’s accessibility

February 18, 2014 4:25 pm

Planning for the future: simple steps to boost your mobile app’s accessibility

I spent a large part of the Christmas holiday showing my mum how to set up and use her brand new Android tablet. She’s gone from never using a computer before to owning a mobile device she can browse from the sofa or take to her favourite café, and she’s delighted that she can finally buy cheap rail tickets and bag a bargain on eBay.

Most of the tools that improve her internet experience were first developed for people with disabilities: screen magnifiers, voice controls, alerts that make the mobile vibrate alongside a visible message. But mobile sites and apps aren’t always designed to work with these tools, meaning that people who have impairments (either because they are elderly or disabled) can’t use them.

It’s easy to forget what a large audience there is for assistive technology. Over 11 million people in the UK have some form of disability and half of them are over pension age. Many of the UK’s 6 million carers are trying to juggle a job alongside their care commitments. That’s a big group of people who are looking for ways to make life easier. Something as simple as a shopping delivery or online bill payment helps people achieve important things, like managing independently in their own home.

Wondering why someone would bother with a smartphone if they don’t see or hear so well? Thanks to the work put in by phone developers, more people than ever can use them. On Android and Apple phones, apps such as Talkback and Voiceover (both screen readers) come bundled with the phone. Other assistive apps are free or cost very little to download on the App Store or Play. Tools like this can be easier to learn than expensive software like Jaws, and they have all the benefit of being portable too. It isn’t usually the device that’s the accessibility barrier these days – it’s the design of the websites and apps that run on them.

So, how do you make your existing mobile site or app accessible to people with diverse needs, across a range of different mobile devices?

The most complete way to do this is to run an accessibility audit, make any changes raised in the audit, then run accessibility testing with real users.

But while you’re thinking about that, here are three of the most common accessibility barriers to check first:

  1. Does the content resize and reflow in portrait as well as landscape view? If it does, users can easily enlarge text to make it easier to read. Using flexible layouts and images also means your work looks as good on tablets and desktops as it does on phones.
  2. Do buttons and form fields have a meaningful name? (Use accessibilityLabel in iOS or contentDescription in Android to achieve this.) A page of links that reads ‘button, button, button’ doesn’t help people do what they need to do.
  3. Do alerts attract attention in more than one way? Set up your popups so they are read out as well as displayed on the screen, and help users keep track of what’s going on.

Because of the restricted screen space, the best mobile websites and apps are simpler than the desktop version. In turn this makes it far easier for people with impairments to order that pizza, book that train ticket or do their weekly shop online, without having to wait for help. The big benefit for developers is that a simpler site is easier for everyone to use.

Who doesn’t prefer (and go back to) a site that makes it quick and easy to do what you want?

For further information on how we help organisations improve their mobile accessibility through audits and testing, drop us an email or give us a call on 0113 350 8155.