The first step of mobile app development is to identify your target audience. You want to provide actual value to real, human users — and if you don’t understand your audience’s needs and expectations, you’ll have trouble marketing your product after launch.
Unfortunately, developers often make assumptions about their users. This starts with user controls: It’s true that many of your users will have access to a touchscreen, but that’s not always the case.
In 2022, WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) surveyed people who use screen readers (software that outputs text as audio or braille). 90% of respondents said that they’ve used screen readers with smartphones and tablets.
And since about 14 million people in the United States have vision impairments, it’s essential to think about those users when developing apps for iOS and Android — even if you expect those users to be a small percentage of your overall audience.
Why is screen reader support important for mobile apps?
You don’t want to prevent anyone from using your product, but you also have a legal responsibility to prioritize accessible design. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to all online content, and major ADA lawsuits have cited accessibility barriers in mobile apps.
Additionally, Google and Apple have made a strong commitment to accessibility. Apple provides guidance for accessible app design, which includes tutorials for optimizing apps for VoiceOver (iOS’s built-in screen reader) and Voice Control. Android’s Developers page includes a similar resource for accessible app design, which leads designers and developers through the best practices.
If Apple and Google agree that accessibility is important, developers need to pay attention. Implementing screen reader support may help with app store optimization (ASO), drawing more users to your product — regardless of whether they live with disabilities.
And since most accessibility improvements cost very little (or nothing at all), there’s no compelling reason to ignore them.
Think about screen reader users from day one
Screen reader support begins with design. The goal isn’t to simply provide accessibility information, but to make information available to every user, regardless of their capabilities or the technology they’re using to interact with your app.
When creating your app’s interface, ask questions:
- Do interactions rely on visual information? For example, your app might have a button that changes appearance when selected. If the button’s appearance is the only indicator of the interaction, you’ll need to rethink your approach.
- Are controls consistent with the controls of other mobile apps? Remember, you want a streamlined user experience — if your app’s controls aren’t familiar to users, some people will find them frustrating.
- Does your app rely on a certain layout, screen size, or device orientation? If so, it probably creates issues for screen reader users (and a wide range of other users).
- Do you override system gestures? This can be especially frustrating for assistive technology users; gestures may be essential, and disabling platform gestures is generally unnecessary.
During the design phase, consider creating user experience (UX) personas with disabilities. Get into the habit of thinking about how each feature affects screen reader users — and be prepared to test your work.
Have an accessibility testing strategy
Throughout development, you’ll need to audit your app. You can perform simple tests by using VoiceOver and Google’s TalkBack, the two most popular screen readers for mobile operating systems.
We’ve written two brief guides to help you get started:
- How Apple VoiceOver Is Used For Mobile Accessibility Testing
- Google TalkBack: An Overview of Android's Free Screen Reader
The best practice is to work with an accessibility partner. Experienced testers will have more aptitude with mobile screen readers, which will limit false negatives (missed accessibility issues) and false positives (finding barriers that don’t actually exist).
By testing content against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you can identify and fix many issues that impact your users:
- Missing accessibility information for app elements, especially custom user interface (UI) elements.
- An incorrect reading sequence for app elements, which can cause screen readers to announce elements out of their logical order.
- Relying on color alone to convey meaning.
- Restricting content to a certain viewport or device orientation.
Following WCAG will also make your app accessible for people with hearing disabilities, mobility limitations, cognitive differences, and a wide range of other conditions.
And when you think about accessibility from day one, every user benefits. Inclusive design is crucial for mobile app development — and while accessibility isn’t just about people with vision impairments, screen reader support is an essential consideration.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides remediation guidance, expert audits, and other resources to help developers build for accessibility. To learn more, send us a message or download our free eBook: The Definitive Mobile Accessibility Checklist.