What Is Accessibility in Mobile Apps?

November 26, 2021

Mobile accessibility refers to an established set of practices that improve app functionality for people with different types of disabilities. By prioritizing accessibility, you can ensure that your app reaches the widest possible audience and limit your chances of accessibility-related litigation. You’ll also benefit from lower long-term development costs and improved user retention (among numerous other benefits). 

In this article, we’ll discuss a few important principles of mobile accessibility. This isn’t intended as a comprehensive guide to mobile app development; for more guidance, we recommend scheduling a mobile accessibility audit to determine whether your app offers reasonable accommodations for its users.

The goal of mobile accessibility is to provide a better experience for all users

One of the most common misconceptions about mobile accessibility is that the goal is to create content for people with vision or hearing disabilities. It’s true that accommodations for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies can improve your app’s functionality. However, you’ll need to consider the full spectrum of users when creating mobile content. 

According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Disabilities can affect user behavior in thousands of ways — and conditions don’t necessarily affect vision or hearing. Consider how your app’s design choices might affect your audience: 

  • An app with color contrast issues may be difficult to view in brightly lit environments. Color contrast issues can also affect people with color vision deficiencies (color blindness) and other vision-related conditions. 
  • If an app doesn’t have consistent navigation elements, users might become confused when interacting with it. 
  • People with small mobile device screens may be unable to trigger small buttons or form fields. Users with mobility-related conditions may also encounter barriers when elements require precise controls.
  • Some users magnify content when using mobile apps. If an app disables pinch-to-zoom scalability, users might not have access to important content.
  • Some users may operate app functions with voice-to-text tools. If the app isn’t optimized for accessibility, those users may feel ignored or frustrated.

Every element of your mobile app needs to be carefully tested to prevent these types of barriers. Fortunately, the world of digital accessibility has established standards and practices — and by taking a principle-based approach, you can build useful mobile content for your entire audience.

Read: What Are the Fundamentals of Mobile Accessibility?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are established standards for mobile content

Published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus framework for digital accessibility. While WCAG was originally developed for websites, the guidelines' objectives are relevant for all digital content. The latest official version (currently, WCAG 2.1) includes success criteria intended for mobile content.

WCAG is a versatile set of standards due to its principle-based approach. Even so, it’s important to recognize that mobile app developers encounter a different set of accessibility challenges than website developers. Developers may need to consider a variety of techniques to conform with the guidelines — while website developers can use standard practices to improve accessibility, app developers need a comprehensive understanding of each platform’s accessibility features and functionality. Regular testing is essential, since retrofitting accessibility features can significantly delay app development.

Read: Should You Test Mobile Apps for Accessibility? Here's What the Stats Say

Mobile accessibility should be a priority throughout the app development process

It’s tempting to push off accessibility until later in the development cycle. Unfortunately, this can increase the long-term costs of your project; fixing accessibility issues may require rewriting code, removing key features, or removing your software from app stores until issues can be remediated. 

Needless to say, a proactive approach is a safer choice. Every member of your team should understand the importance of mobile accessibility. From the first stages of development, users with disabilities should be a shared priority — and designers and developers should understand how each decision affects the app’s intended audience. 

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a variety of free tools and resources for understanding the best practices of WCAG and building an accessible mindset. For app developers, our free checklist for mobile accessibility provides an excellent starting point. 

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