Accessibility testing on mobile devices is critical, yet so often organizations focus only on desktop optimization. There are at least three main reasons this oversight can be a costly mistake:
- The user, not the company, decides how they'll access the site or app.
- Apps and mobile websites are different from desktop sites.
- Apps and mobile websites are not automatically accessible because of iOS and Android accessibility features.
1. The user, not the company, decides how they'll access the site or app
For some people, if they're having trouble completing a task on a smartphone or the site doesn't seem to be working well on mobile for whatever reason, they will pull out a laptop and do what they intended to do. The same can be true for desktop sites, and people will pull their smartphone out of their pocket and move on their way.
For some, interchangeable access and use of a desktop and mobile device can be difficult or impossible. As it relates to this topic, the assumption can't be made that if the mobile site or app isn't accessible then that person can easily do the same on a computer. For any number of reasons — physical limitations or pain that make using a computer challenging, the availability of a computer with the necessary assistive technology at that time, the financial barrier of some assistive technology, or anything else — some people need to or want to use a mobile device instead. So, failing to consider mobile accessibility is failing to consider the needs of the people who require accessible mobile experiences.
Please note this is not to say that there are not legitimate mobile-only apps or sites or tools that may truly be best on desktop — there are and that isn't an issue on its own — but it's important to keep in mind that the increasing preference to use a smartphone over a computer is not something that is unique to people without disabilities.
2. Apps and mobile websites are different from desktop sites
Many people assume that if the desktop version of a website was built to be accessible, then the site will also be accessible on a mobile device. While it is true that a website optimized for accessibility on a desktop is more likely to work well on a smartphone or tablet, it is also true that:
- Websites and apps will render differently on a mobile device.
- The device itself, including accessibility features, will interact differently.
- There are special considerations for mobile accessibility.
Websites and apps will render differently on a mobile device
If you've ever visited a website on a computer and then on a smartphone and noticed that things seem different, then you've experienced this. Maybe navigation is different on a mobile device and a new kind of menu appears. Maybe content becomes vertically stacked instead of spread out in columns. There might even be different or less content altogether. Or, maybe the website isn't responsive or optimized for mobile at all and becomes hard to use. Whatever the case may be, content and functionality are not the same, or at least are not used in the same way, on desktop and mobile experiences.
The device itself, including accessibility features, will interact differently
The code that makes up a website or app does not work in a vacuum and is only one part of the user experience equation. All of the other systems and tools that connect people with the actual digital content must work together and be compatible, or the experience (including the accessibility) is likely to break.
While the major devices, browsers, and operating systems have done a great job of expanding their compatibility to work more seamlessly together, at the end of the day they are different. It's highly possible that something — a link, a form, a plugin, anything — may work using Chrome on a Windows computer but not using Safari on an iPhone, for example.
Assistive technology like screen readers are also different across these device types and often have differences in settings or functionality that could mean that content is accessible in one place and not in another.
There are special considerations for mobile accessibility
Because of factors like the smaller screen size and the tapping and swiping behaviors, there are some differences between computer and mobile devices that accessibility testers should be looking for. One of the improvement areas in WCAG 2.1, published in 2018, was the addition of success criteria for mobile accessibility.
Options like allowing the user to view content in landscape or portrait orientation can be critical for accessibility.
To learn more, read:
- Improve Mobile Website and App Accessibility
- History of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
3. Apps and mobile websites are not automatically accessible because of iOS and Android accessibility features
The popular smartphone manufacturers are doing a great job of building powerful accessibility tools directly into their products out-of-the-box. Voice control, display and magnification options, and robust screen readers (VoiceOver on iPhones and TalkBack on Android devices) are great examples of free assistive technology that can be used right away.
This does not mean, however, that apps and mobile sites are automatically accessible. Just like the desktop versions of websites, mobile sites and apps need to be built in a way that works with the assistive technology and provides users the information they need to consume content and provide input. Design elements like color also require attention and will not be automatically adjusted to have sufficient contrast.
Building the site or app to be accessible will allow assistive technology to interact with it, but even with powerful assistive technology, inaccessible code remains inaccessible.