The importance of making mobile apps accessible

A number of people (who don’t work in my industry) have said to me: “Blind people can’t use mobiles though…” And although we may gasp at this or laugh at their naivety it’s surprising how many mobile applications don’t cater for people with disabilities.

Mobile applications such as Uber taxis and Ariadne GPS assist visually impaired users in different ways. I’ve met with a number of visually impaired people who have told me about how Uber has made their lives easier as they can quickly book a taxi using their screen reader and they don’t have to worry about finding money to pay for it. Banking applications allow visually impaired users to keep on top of their accounts and finances without having to take a trip to their local bank.

All these apps, and many more, are making everyone’s lives easier because we can carry out tasks from the palm of our hands which we couldn’t do several years ago.

With this in mind accessibility and user experience should be the forefront of all app designs and development. However, you may come across apps with poor colour contrast on text; small buttons which are difficult to interact with and unclear error validation. As well as these issues a number of applications are also not accessible with mobile screen readers. I have conducted a number of mobile usability testing studies where visually impaired mobile users where unable to get to the next screen/stage in an app due to elements not working with Voiceover and Talkback.

A screen reader is a software application that will identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen. Screen readers are often used by people with visual impairments and it gives users the ability to navigate around pages and find the information they need. When you purchase a mobile phone it already has a built in screen reader known as Voiceover (for iPhone) and Talkback (for Android).

Accessibility for mobile (and tablet) applications should be incorporated right at the start of the process. As soon as designers begin to create the sketch and prototype designs people should be questioning the accessibility of each screen. One method I’ve used to do this is by adding notes to Axure designs reminding teams to consider accessibility. For example, on a mobile drop down menu design I would add a note saying things such as “…Screen reader users should be informed about the state of the pop-up menu…”

I’m currently working with a bank who develop a number of different applications. Part of the work I do involves testing the accessibility of each application on an early development release before it goes live to the public. We test regularly and constantly feed back to the development teams who will fix any accessibility issues. This also involves user testing with users who have varied abilities on all application. The applications are constantly being updated with a number of new features and therefore accessibility testing and involving users has to be consistent and continuous.

There are number of ways in which accessibility can be included at every stages. You can involve users with disabilities in the user experience research and user testing; consider colour contrast and hit targets in design and investigate any accessibility errors in development and testing.

Applications are constantly updating and therefore any new features and updates should be tested again and again until it is as accessible as possible. Accessibility is not about one single look over the product, fix the issues and it meets WCAG AA. It’s so much more than that. Accessibility of an application should be integrated into the user journey, design, development and testing process.