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5 Quick Tips for Testing Mobile App Accessibility

Jun 9, 2023

Every mobile app should be accessible for as many users as possible — and that includes people with disabilities. 

According to a study performed by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies Shepherd Center, 91% of people with disabilities use a smartphone or a tablet, and 70% use mobile apps. 

That survey was conducted in 2015 and 2016 — the percentage of mobile users with disabilities may have risen substantially since then. About 1 in 4 U.S. adults have at least one disability, and if your mobile app ignores 25% of its potential audience, you have a problem. 

Unfortunately, many of the most popular apps on iOS and Android have significant accessibility barriers. Embracing accessibility can help you showcase your brand’s values and improve the experience for all users. 

By following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you can create more inclusive content (and enjoy the sizable business benefits of accessible design). Here are a few tips for building an effective testing strategy.

1. Use automated tests for mobile accessibility testing, but don’t rely on them 

Automated accessibility tools are available for both iOS and Android. However, no automated test is perfect, and mobile app testing tools are especially limited. 

An automated tool may miss barriers that are specific to a certain mobile environment. Generally, they’re also restricted to certain types of content; while automation might find most of the barriers on a web app, it may miss dozens of serious issues on a native app (or vice-versa). 

It’s also important to remember that some WCAG criteria require human judgment. Automation might tell you whether your web app uses subheadings in sequential order, but it can’t determine whether subheadings are actually useful for real-life users.

For apps that use WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications), automated tools aren’t ideal. They might flag aria-hidden content as inaccessible — but the content may be hidden for a valid reason

And while automated tools can find certain ARIA issues, ARIA support varies from one screen reader to the next. If you’re not testing your app manually with a real screen reader, you won’t know whether your app has a predictable semantic structure.

Automated testing can still be useful, even for native apps with complex functionality. However, your strategy should also include regular manual tests — ideally, performed by accessibility experts who use assistive technology (AT) regularly.

Related: Does the ADA Require Mobile Websites and Apps to be Accessible?

2. Focus on accessibility as early as possible

Many of the most serious accessibility barriers can be remediated easily during the first stages of development. The problem: If you don’t know that those barriers exist, you can’t fix them.

If an accessibility flaw gets “baked” into your product’s design, you’ll need to spend more resources correcting it. For example, choosing an accessible color scheme is fairly straightforward during the first stages of design. If your app is already available to consumers, fixing poor color contrast is much more difficult (and expensive).

Make accessibility a priority from day one. Discuss WCAG with your entire team, and let them know that everyone has a role to play — designers need to use color in an accessible way, developers need to ensure that content works for AT users, and content creators must provide users with clear instructions. 

Related: Understanding How People With Disabilities Use Mobile Devices 

3. Make sure interactions don’t depend on a specific type of input

Let’s say you’re building a kanban productivity app. You ask users to drag tiles from one column to the next to move the task through the process.

That’s intuitive for users with touchscreens — but what if the user prefers voice controls or keyboard controls? 

Don’t make assumptions about your users. When developing features, ask whether they work for people who can’t perceive color, people who can’t use motion controls, and keyboard-only users. Developing user experience personas with disabilities can make this process easier.

Related: Understanding WCAG 2.1 Guideline 2.5: Input Modalities

4. Test on different types of devices 

This may sound obvious, but not all of your users have the latest iPhone. If your app is successful, your user base will be large — and they’ll use a variety of devices and assistive technologies.

Your mobile app testing strategy should reflect the full spectrum of your users. To that end, manually test your product in as many ways as possible. 

  • Use native screen readers (VoiceOver for iOS and Google TalkBack for Android) to review your markup.
  • Test with a keyboard — no touchscreen controls — to make sure your app is keyboard accessible.
  • Wherever possible, use real devices. Mobile environment simulators aren’t perfect, especially if your app depends on geolocation, accelerometers, or other mobile-specific features.

When testing your app with screen readers, remember that your experience is limited: If you only use screen-reading software for accessibility testing, you won’t have the same understanding of the software as an experienced user.

Related: What Is Accessibility in Mobile Apps?

5. Don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to mobile testing

Every app is different, and the testing process for a web app is quite different from the process for a native app. It’s important to remember that no content is 100% accessible to every user: The goal of testing is to limit barriers and to follow WCAG as closely as possible.

The specific features of an app may require additional considerations. For example, if you’re building an art app, you might require certain interactions that limit accessibility — but you can still make the app more accessible by following other relevant WCAG criteria.

Your accessibility partner can help you design an appropriate testing strategy. At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we utilize a hybrid methodology for web and mobile accessibility testing, which combines powerful automation with manual tests performed by experts who have disabilities. 

Our goal is to help our clients meet their digital accessibility goals and develop self-sufficiency. That’s especially important for mobile app development — with an accessible mindset, your team can create fantastic content that works for a wider variety of users. 

To learn more, send us a message or download our free eBook: The Definitive Mobile Accessibility Checklist.

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