What Are the Fundamentals of Mobile Accessibility?

September 27, 2021

According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans own a smartphone; about half of Americans own a tablet. 15 percent of American adults are “smartphone-only" internet users. Needless to say, if your content isn’t optimized for mobile use, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with your audience.

Accessibility is a crucial consideration for mobile web design. Your audience includes people with disabilities that change their browsing habits — including people with temporary and situational disabilities. Situational disabilities are particularly common for mobile users: They may be unable to listen to audio while browsing in a crowded environment, or if they’re browsing from an unstable connection, images might not load. Planning for mobile accessibility ensures that every user enjoys a similar high-quality experience. 

Fortunately, the world of mobile web accessibility has clear rules. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most widely cited international standards for web accessibility. The WCAG standards and guidelines apply to mobile websites and apps. 

At this time, the framework does not provide separate requirements for mobile accessibility. However, mobile developers may need to make special considerations when building for accessibility — smartphones and tablets work differently from desktop computing environments. By developing the right approach, you can create more useful content (and realize the substantial benefits of digital accessibility). 

Make a commitment to the principles of mobile accessibility

The WCAG framework is centered around four principles: Perceivability, Operability, Understandability, and Robustness (sometimes referred to as the POUR principles). Here’s how those principles can guide your design and development decisions:

Perceivability 

Your content’s components and information should be presented to users in a way that they can perceive. To use our earlier example, if a mobile user can’t view images, they may be able to perceive alternative text (or alt text) that describes the image. 

Mobile audiences will access your content using a variety of devices with differently sized screens. Make sure every element is equally perceivable for everyone — including users who use screen readers and other assistive technologies. 

Operability

This principle ensures that users are able to operate the content’s interface. If your clickable elements are too close together or too small to be activated in a predictable way, your content probably creates barriers for some users. 

Understandability

Your users should be able to understand your content and its interface. Elements should be presented in a predictable way; for example, a “Click Here" button in a mobile app should be accompanied by clear information explaining what the button does. Your content should also use concise language without much industry-specific jargon.

Robustness

Users should be able to access your content with different technologies. Mobile users often access the web with touchscreens, but some people prefer eye-gaze systems, voice-control software, or even keyboards for navigation. Accessible mobile design means planning for all of these input methods. Avoid interactions that are specific to certain control mechanisms unless they’re absolutely necessary.

As a whole, these principles provide the foundation for an accessible mobile website or app. Of course, WCAG provides much more detailed guidance for finding and addressing accessibility issues, but you’ll need to understand the core concepts in order to make effective improvements.

Read: 5 Tips to Improve Mobile Accessibility

Mobile accessibility improves your content for all users, not just people living with disabilities

It’s important to remember that disabilities are a wide spectrum. Your goal isn’t to optimize your mobile content for people who are blind or people with other specific disabilities — your goal is to create content that accommodates different types of user behaviors and habits. 

Some questions to consider during development:

  • Can users interact with my content on an especially small screen? 
  • Will my mobile content operate predictably if people increase the size of the text or use screen magnifiers? 
  • Does my content work in different aspect ratios (for instance, both landscape and portrait orientations?) 
  • Does my mobile content have accessible color contrast ratios?
  • Do content navigational elements operate in a predictable way?
  • Can users get help if they encounter an accessibility barrier?

These basic questions should help you develop an accessible mindset. However, for the best possible results, you’ll need to treat accessibility as a priority throughout the project.

Work with experienced accessibility experts from the first stages of development. Perform mobile accessibility tests frequently, particularly when adding new features or changing functionality. Tests should use the WCAG framework, and if developers perform tests manually, they should have a solid understanding of WCAG success criteria. Automated accessibility tests like the A11Y® Accessibility Testing Platform can be useful for finding certain issues, but don’t assume that a single test will make your mobile app or website accessible. 

By making a commitment to mobile accessibility, you can enjoy higher customer retention rates, improved search engine optimization, and lower long-term maintenance costs. Most importantly, you’ll create a better experience for your users.

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