Digital accessibility is a set of practices that make the internet more usable for people with disabilities. These practices cover all types of digital content, but developers often focus on two specific areas: mobile accessibility and website accessibility.
Here’s a quick overview of how accessibility experts use these terms:
- Mobile accessibility refers to practices that improve usability on mobile devices, including (but not limited to) smartphones and tablets. Typically, the term refers to native app design, but web-based mobile apps can also fall under the umbrella of mobile accessibility.
- Website accessibility refers to the established practices that make websites more useful, regardless of the user’s browsing habits or technology preferences.
Of course, there’s a significant degree of overlap between these two concepts; mobile device users are responsible for roughly half of all website traffic worldwide, and all types of digital accessibility use the same basic principles to identify (and remove) barriers that affect people with disabilities.
Whether you’re a developer, a designer, or a content writer, it’s helpful to consider the different challenges of creating accessible mobile apps and websites. Below, we’ll explain some of the ways that these concepts are different — and the shared concepts that can help you build a better approach to accessibility.
Digital accessibility has a consistent set of standards
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are the consensus standards for internet accessibility. Many regulations specifically cite the WCAG framework, and in recent years, WCAG has been updated to provide guidance for new technologies.
WCAG includes dozens of success criteria, which are based on the four fundamental principles of accessibility: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. This principle-based approach recognizes the full scope of how disabilities affect user behavior, ensuring that the WCAG framework will remain useful as technologies change.
Some WCAG criteria are more applicable to mobile websites and apps
WCAG 2.1 is the most recent official version of the guidelines at the time of writing (we’ll note here that WCAG 2.2 may become official guidance within the next several months). Formally published on June 5, 2018, WCAG 2.1 includes updates specific to mobile accessibility that require content to be presented in different ways without losing information or structure. For instance, if a user accesses content on a smaller-than-average screen, the page’s layout won’t hide important controls or text.
All content creators should follow the latest WCAG recommendations to avoid barriers that affect people with disabilities. However, remediation tactics will change considerably depending on the nature of the content — while websites can often address issues with relatively simple HTML fixes, mobile apps may need platform-specific guidance.
Native mobile app platforms can affect accessibility
Many common website accessibility issues can be resolved by reviewing site structure, adding descriptions to images, and providing users with more options for accessing content. Web developers have an advantage: HTML has established best practices, and following those practices will ensure that every user has roughly the same experience, regardless of their browser choice or other factors.
Native mobile apps can create additional challenges, since different platforms have different accessibility features. Developers will need to understand the accessibility features of the platform in order to create accessible code. For example, some native platforms use different attributes to declare alternative text (also called alt text). If an app doesn’t have appropriate attributes, the user experience will suffer — a person who uses a screen reader may be unable to operate controls, or they might miss important content.
Native apps can create various barriers including:
- The mobile operating system’s built-in zoom functions may cause text to appear blurry or unreadable.
- If the app doesn’t support dynamic text, users with vision-related disabilities may not be able to enlarge the text for readability.
- Custom widgets may prevent users from utilizing screen readers and other assistive technologies.
- Apps may not present content with a clear, logical structure.
- Apps may not support different types of keyboards and alternative input methods.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that website accessibility is easier than mobile accessibility, but native apps will often require different accommodations. However, the WCAG framework still applies. To limit a mobile app’s cost and timeframe, it’s extremely important to consider accessibility from the first stages of development.
All content creators can use the WCAG framework to develop for accessibility
Website accessibility and mobile accessibility are crucial concepts for the modern internet. When developers ignore accessibility, they ignore their real-world audiences, which can have a dramatic effect on audience retention: About 25% of adults in the United States have a disability, and according to one survey, 61% of smartphone users who have trouble accessing a site are unlikely to return.
Fortunately, WCAG provides detailed guidance for developers, programmers, designers, and content creators. The guidelines provide a path for prioritizing digital accessibility — and whether you’re building a website, designing a mobile app, or creating any other type of digital content, the principles of WCAG will help you develop a better approach.