Considerations for mobile accessibility

4 keys to an accessible, mobile user experience

“Wallet. Phone. Keys.” This is the mantra that I recite every time I leave my house – my mental checklist before venturing into the outside world. Mobile has become an essential part of our daily lives so how do we ensure that the mobile experience is inclusive of all abilities?

WCAG 2.0 and beyond

WCAG 2.0 is the current gold standard when aiming for an accessible website. In our accessibility testing and auditing we have encountered a number of ways we feel WCAG 2.0 may not go far enough – for example, it is possible to create font size and colour contrast combinations that are technically compliant but which are utterly unreadable by most audiences. Nonetheless, WCAG 2.0 remains the one really great set of standards that most legislation relies on.

But what about all the non-web content and apps on our mobile devices – does WCAG 2.0 cover these? It turns out that it does, but again, we need to go further when we take our devices on the go.

  • Adequate colour contrast is even more important in bright sunlight
  • The effective use of audio and video are even more essential in noisy environments
  • Helping people maintain task focus is even more challenging in a busy world of distractions
  • Avoiding small font sizes and small touch targets are even more critical on small screens

“Overall, WCAG 2.0 is highly relevant to both web and non-web mobile content and applications.”

— W3C, Mobile Accessibility: How WCAG 2.0 and Other W3C/WAI Guidelines Apply to Mobile

Assistive technology (AT) and mobile

In some cases the assistive technology is built right into mobile devices. VoiceOver in iOS and TalkBack in Android are built-in screen readers that can be turned on in the system settings – no separate screen reader software is needed.

What may be more surprising to app designers and developers is that many people with disabilities use separate assistive hardware to support their needs with mobile devices – keyboards for text entry, specialized pointing devices for navigation and interaction, etc. Mobile experiences need to support assistive hardware just as much as laptops and desktops do. As with the mobile web, mobile devices and native apps need to support a wide range of assistive technology.

iOS vs Android accessibility

Both iOS and Android have accessibility features built in. How do they compare?

The accessibility features of iOS are mature; they have been baked in to the OS from the outset. Android, by contrast, has been trying to catch up incrementally with each new version and by some accounts they are succeeding. But the problem, as ever with Android, is that the newest versions of Android and their improved accessibility features are only available on the newest devices.

  • VoiceOver (iOS) and TalkBack (Android) are built-in screen readers with comparable functionality. The gestures for each are unique which means switching between them is challenging. The longer history and greater familiarity with VoiceOver may be a factor in the loyalty to IOS that we have observed with participants in our accessibility testing.
  • There are many more accessible apps in the Apple app store than for Android. The long term stability of iOS built-in accessibility features means there is a longer history of making accessible iOS apps and making accessible apps is easier and more robust than on Android.
  • All of the default installed iOS apps are accessible. This has not been the case with Android, especially with Chrome, which has been very problematic over the years.
  • To the amazement of people without vision impairments, many people with low vision prefer to use their mobile device with the screen turned off. This feature is available with a shortcut in iOS. On Android, this can be added with a third party enhancement called “Shades”.
  • Android is much more customizable than iOS. One way this has proved beneficial is that it allows people to customize their home screen to better suit their specific abilities.

Any comparison of iOS and Android will have defenders of each but to date, all participants in our accessibility testing on mobile have all been iOS users.

Mobile accessibility legislation

Accessibility legislation around the globe is pushing organizations toward WCAG 2.0 compliance with their web content. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, requires airlines that fly within the U.S. to demonstrate that people with disabilities have equal access to services and information through the airline websites. (See A Web Accessibility Primer: Part 1 for more about accessibility legislation.)

What is less clear are the immediate implications for native apps. In the long term, all forms of discriminatory access can be expected to face regulatory prohibition so we feel it is prudent to support accessibility best practices in all mobile products and services.

Besides, it’s not just about the law. Accessibility benefits all of us.