The importance of inclusivity: how to make your app accessible
The spotlight on accessibility has become increasingly apparent in the last 10 years. When considering your app’s user experience it may seem daunting to contemplate the vast array of requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to make your app more accessible. A large amount of your app’s potential users will require design considerations that either accommodate or at the very least address their unique needs - coupling your mobile app’s accessibility solely with disabilities is a misinformed opinion. As one of the core principles of user experience (UX), making your mobile app more accessible can only help your app acquire and retain users.
Inclusivity is for everyone
Mobile apps aren’t going away - an average smartphone owner uses 10 apps per day and up to 30 apps each month. With more traditionally offline industries (real estate and banking) branching out into the digital landscape, it’s clear that some apps will vary in complexity of use for your broader audience. Testing is so crucial when working on your app’s user experience - you need to consider the shapes and sizes and behaviours of every potential user. After all, UX applies to every single one of your users - if even some of your users can’t use your app effortlessly, you need to go back to the drawing board.
Anyone at any time can always benefit from mobile app accessibility regardless of their circumstances. Inclusive design features go so much further than just how an app works - it also concerns the functionality and the experience that your app has to offer. Below is a list of 4 attributes to focus on in relation to how users interact with your app:
Learning difficulties have the disadvantage of being “invisible” due to them sometimes not being physically or even noticeably apparent. With a mobile app you need to cater towards users that may be illiterate or digitally illiterate. 23% of adults internationally are digitally illiterate - this is a large group of potential users that you shouldn’t ignore. When designing an app in India, Alex Cox (developer) needed to take into consideration the low literacy levels of the regions where he was testing:
“This meant that we needed to design an application that was simple and intuitive to use, culturally appropriate, and written in plain language while still understandable without reading.”
Your app can always be more accessible for these users by using clear, short sentences and easily identifiable icons.
Think of all the complex gestures, swipes and movements required for app usage. Now imagine the difficulties faced for users with motor disabilities or those that simply cannot navigate your app. Try and run your app through Apple’s Accessibility Inspector. This will give you an insight into how accessible your app is and how to better optimize your content and design. You need to ensure that there are alternative ways for these users to get the most rewarding experience out of your app.
There are a large range of hearing difficulties that pose different challenges. Some users may be fully deaf whereas others may be hard of hearing or just have trouble hearing specific frequencies. It’s your responsibility to always think of other ways to convey audio cues for your users. Even outside of people who are hard of hearing, the use of closed captions has grown - Dr Andrew Kent, an adolescent psychiatrist, noted that “auditory processing is more easily impacted upon by distractions, and that they [Gen Z] need to read to stay focused.”
Visual difficulties also come in many different forms - from difficulty to distinguish certain colors to full blindness. The digital experience relies a lot on displays and visual information. The best way to address this and improve upon your app’s accessibility is by adding supplementary sound cues and descriptions.
Sight accessibility resources like text-to-speech also see a growing use outside of visually impaired users - students, readers and multitaskers all benefit from this added inclusivity.
Guidelines of app accessibility
1. Clear layout philosophy
This is just good UX design, having a messy or distracting interface is at best an annoyance for your users and a worst can make your app completely unusable, turning away existing and potential users. Elements such as calls to action and bodied text make up most of the content on mobile apps - they need to be as readable as possible and seamlessly guide users through your app. In addition to this, on-screen information needs be laid out to suit and adjust to the many screen sizes for each mobile device. Material.io provides an excellent guide to useable design regarding app layout. Remember even with advances in accessibility, if you think adding more visual elements is superfluous then try looking at other creative, interactive methods for how you layout your app.
This ties in with the above principle but goes a bit further in regards to accessibility. Your app’s menus, displays and general user flow needs to be easy to follow and make sense. Your user needs to be able to know exactly where they are in the app no matter which page they’re currently on. Everyone involved with app development should familiarize themselves with mental models - the ways and ideas in which we understand and predict how something works. This includes keeping core features consistently positioned so users can always return or access other features smoothly. Also consider keeping gestures and interfacing simple - think of the limitations others may face while operating on a touch screen, adding shortcuts or alternative ways to swipe and tap are very easy ways to empower your users and ensure they get the most out of your app. When it comes to consistency, being able to effortlessly navigate an app boosts usability for all users.
3. Color coding and contrast
This is closely linked with your app’s user interface (UI) - you want to make it as appealing as possible so your users actually enjoy their time spent in-app. Your color palette is an important factor, not only for potential color-blind users but color also plays an important role in signifying features in your app. A great point of reference is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) - the main international body for internet standards. To comply with their 2.1 AA guidelines, text needs to have at least a 4.5:1 color contrast ratio. Your colors need to be easily distinguishable from each other and exude a consistent theme to your users. Also keep in mind that your app will be used to just about every type of light level and setting (think about glare), your app’s contrast goes a long way in usability.
4. Audio & visual material
Although your app’s color choice can make or break its accessibility, it doesn’t exist in isolation - don’t solely rely on color to explain features and messages. A study found that over 82% of their respondents used screen readers (text to speech) - an increase from only 12% in their previous report. With subtitles and audio descriptions becoming more prominent in recent years, any app lacking these helpful features for users who are hard of hearing or have visual impairments is a major step backwards. The same goes for incorporating audio & visual elements - providing features like window-view, fullscreen, stop, pause, captions and volume control are easily doable and give so much access and control to your users.
How to make your app more accessible
With mobile apps becoming larger parts of our day-to-day, the demographic of users has skyrocketed. Over 5.19 billion people use mobile phones around the world and it’s only set to increase year by year. The market for mobile apps is wider than ever before. When focusing on good user experience, accessibility should be at the forefront of every decision you make. Android and iOS provide developers with app development tools designed to improve mobile accessibility. Functionality should be at the core of your design philosophy - everyone can benefit from built-in accessible functions.
Below we’ve included some features and accessibility standards for mobile that you can add to your app today.
1. Audio description and captioning
If your app contains media or audio material you need to ensure that users have another method to interact with your app without fully relying on either one. Although your app may have distinctive audio cues, you need to think of alternatives like closers captions or transcripts. These provide visually impaired users with a way to understand your app’s content such as titles and headings. Captioning on the other hand is more of an asset to users hard of hearing but also for users that prefer written information or are working outside of their mother tongue. It can empower your audience to better comprehend your content and fill in the gaps that they may not necessarily hear. With closed captions you can even provide opportunities to either enable or disable them.
Speech recognition can be used for dictating text in a form field, as well as navigating to and activating links, buttons, and other controls. Most computers and mobile devices today have built-in speech recognition functionality. Some of these tools allow for complete control over in-app interactions, empowering users to scroll the screen, copy and paste text, activate menus, and perform other helpful functions.
This is not only beneficial for people with chronic physical disabilities but also for users who may have temporary injuries or even just for their ease of use eg.multitasking. To implement speech recognition not only does your app need to have the functionality programmed but assets also need to be appropriately clear and labeled.
Even if you provide users with an abundance of accessibility tools and support, it’s impossible to deliver a perfect user interface for everyone. The more customization possibilities you add, the more users can get exactly what they want out of your app, as they need it. Operating system accessibilities do cater to most customization options, however you can always go the extra mile and really look at new ways to include custom actions in your app. For example, if there’s comment or share functions under icons requiring the user to either hold or swipe, think about the fact that this might not be feasible for some of your users.
4. TalkBack / VoiceOver
This is text that can be read by accessibility software such as screen readers. TalkBack and VoiceOver are the two available on Android and iOS respectively. These read out your app’s on-screen text as well as CTAs and other navigational options. If designed well, they also read non-visible text and descriptive alternatives. Alt text (alternative text) acts as description for in-app content such as images. With alt text you can tell your users as much as possible about what they’re seeing as it provides a direct translation from visuals to text. TalkBack and VoiceOver will recognize the text replacement providing visually impaired users an excellent accessible alternative for in-app images and media. In addition to this, by adding keywords for your alt text, you can actually boost your SEO. It’s a win-win situation!
Consistency is the biggest factor overall for improving app accessibility for your users. For example, bring as much visual layout crossover as you can from your website - your user experience should not greatly differ from device to device. Android and Apple are continuously updating their OS and finding better ways for developers to implement more inclusive designs. Although we are turning over a new leaf in regards to increasing the accessibility of the digital world, there is still no official body or guide to define accessible mobile app standards.
Currently, the EU has pending legislation on digital accessibility as it has become more pertinent than ever that as many users as possible can benefit from every type of service available on mobile and online - remember, a good user experience design is an inclusive one.