How and Why to Make Your Application Accessible
Accessibility is certainly influencing the application in a positive way. Why is it so often overlooked? There are many reasons – time, effort, money, but also the conviction that handicapped people are not using your app. But is it really so? WHO states that 15 % of the world population has some kind of medical disadvantage. Based on the data from Czech Statistical Office, there are 13 % people in the Czech Republic who are limited in performing basic tasks. That constitutes more than a million of potential users only in the Czech Republic. If we dismiss the moral and social motivations – are those 13 % of potential users not worth the change of priorities in your backlog?
Handicaps vs. Accessibility
In order to clarify how applications are made accessible to disadvantaged people, I need to show different types of handicaps that need to be taken into consideration. In general, there are many more, but I am listing those with the biggest impact on mobile apps.
Users with visual impairment have most often trouble using applications that do not have any accessibility elements. Visual impairment does not necessarily mean blindness. Among the most common manifestations is longsightedness (inability to see sharply close objects), color blindness or sore eyes. In order to make mobile apps accessible, the most common tools are making the font bigger, using contrast or sounds.
The most common issue with hearing is the trouble with hearing a part of the hearing field and partial deafness (or complete deafness). Mobile applications compensate for this handicap most often visually (for example by rewriting speech or sounds) and haptically (vibration instead of ringtone).
A motorical impairment can often be connected to trouble sitting down, laying down, getting up or standing for a longer time. The biggest limitation in using mobile apps are issues with fine motor activity or speed of movement. With the growth in size of phones, also common users have trouble to safely manipulate the phone with one hand (which is for example compensated by the function Reachability in iOS).
Health handicaps in the area of mental issues are relatively wide. From the point of view of mobile app development, it is reasonable to address mostly trouble with memory. The best tool is a good UX design which has as much information as possible in the surroundings (knowledge in the world). For example login can be done using Face ID (instead of a numerical pin).
For the design and prioritization of individual functionalities of accessibility, it is suitable to know your target group well. For an application for the Czech market, it might be reasonable to favor accessibility for visually impaired over illiteracy. For the case that your app will be primarily used by visually impaired users, there is no use prioritizing its visual embellishment.
How to Adjust the Application
Both Android and iOS have a similar approach to accessibility. Both platforms also dispose of a wide range of development tools to make accessibility possible. So what should your app be able to do?
- Use system settings for font size. It is a seemingly trivial thing, but for the most numerous group of visually impaired it has a big impact. The app might look great with small letters and all fits on the display. But it is useless when the user cannot read the text.
- Implement reading the text aloud. This allows visually impaired users to access data on the display of their phone. Android offers Google Voice Assistant (formerly TalkBack), iOS offers VoiceOver. These solutions usually divide the screen into individual components that the user is switching between using gestures. When moving to the next component, the phone reads its content aloud. It is suitable to include labels for the individual elements of the application in order to help navigation.
- Subtitle the sound. In case that your app includes video or spoken word, always accompany this multimedia content with subtitles.
- Test gestures. If you decide to implement special gestures into your application, always test usability of the app without gestures. Or alternatively offer the users an alternative. A motorically impaired user can have trouble doing a quick swipe with three fingers.
- UX consistency. Make sure that your application is consistent and that the same elements are placed on the same spots throughout the app. A differently placed button is annoying also for a regular user, but for a handicapped one, it can mean a much more significant issue.
- Test the zoom function. Users can zoom the content in by hundreds of percent. Try out how the application looks when zoomed in, if everything is still sharp and how easily it can be operated.
Why (not) to Solve Accessibility?
During the design and development of mobile application, it is suitable to keep in mind that every seventh user can have a handicap. It can have many forms and each of them needs a different adjustment. Luckily both biggest mobile platforms have enough tools for users as well as developers. Now it is key to admit that accessibility is not just another functionality but a key attribute of every modern app.