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Why Situational Disabilities Are Important for Mobile App Design

Jun 19, 2023

Digital accessibility conversations often focus on conditions that affect vision, hearing, and mobility. That’s certainly reasonable: About 25% of U.S. adults live with at least one disability, and that percentage is expected to increase as the Baby Boomer generation ages.

But it’s also important to consider temporary and situational disabilities, especially when designing mobile apps. 

Chances are, every one of your users will eventually encounter a situation that changes the way they use your product; your job is to make sure that your app works well for those users.

What are temporary and situational disabilities, and why are they important?

Temporary disabilities are exactly what they sound like: broken bones, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other non-permanent conditions. When people have these conditions, they might change their behavior: They may use their phone’s built-in screen reader, or they might avoid apps that require certain types of gesture-based input.

Situational disabilities are based on specific circumstances. Some common examples: 

  • A person uses your website in bright ambient light. They’re unable to read low-contrast text.
  • A person uses your app with a partially broken touchscreen. They use a Bluetooth keyboard to navigate the app and operate the controls.
  • A person uses your app on a crowded subway. To avoid disturbing other passengers, they turn their sound off.
  • A person uses your app while driving. They rely on voice controls to operate the app’s features.

These situations are remarkably common. In one Pew Research survey, 46% of U.S. adults said that they’d used voice-controlled digital assistants to interact with their smartphones. In another survey, 28% of respondents said that they were answering the questionnaire on devices with cracked screens.

Here's the good news: When you follow the best practices of inclusive design, you can provide a better experience to all users — regardless of the technologies they use to navigate your app. 

Related: Including Temporary and Situational Disabilities in the Accessibility Conversation

To create robust, accessible mobile apps, follow WCAG

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the international standard for digital accessibility, and while the guidelines are commonly applied to website content, they’re also applicable to mobile apps.

Following WCAG addresses the situational disabilities that affect mobile users: 

  • WCAG requires text (and other foreground elements) to maintain a minimum color contrast ratio, ensuring that text is readable in bright ambient light.
  • WCAG requires that content is operable with a keyboard alone, improving experiences for users with broken touchscreens.
  • WCAG requires user interface components to have accessible names that contain the text that is presented visually. This makes controls more predictable for people who use voice assistants to navigate content.
  • WCAG requires that multi-point or path-based gestures can be operated with a single-pointer. This also accommodates users with broken touch screens — if a feature requires a “drag and drop" motion, for instance, that feature can be activated in another way.

These are easy improvements to implement — provided that you think about accessibility from the first stages of app design. Adding alternative controls for multi-point gestures isn’t difficult, but adding those controls after your app is published will require more resources.

Related: Which WCAG Success Criteria Apply to Mobile Accessibility?

Design inclusive content that works for every type of user

The solution: Treat accessibility as a priority. Make sure that your developers and designers are familiar with WCAG, and test your app frequently throughout development. 

It’s a good idea to ask questions when planning each feature:

  • Does the app require users to have certain types of sensory perception? 
  • Does the app insist on a certain input method (for instance, motion controls or path-based gestures)? 
  • Does the app’s design rely on color to convey information?
  • Can users operate all of the controls with a keyboard alone?

Consider creating user experience (UX) personas with disabilities, including situational disabilities. When you actively consider all of your users — not just an ideal, “typical" user — you deliver a more predictable, consistent experience.

That approach has enormous benefits, including enhanced app store optimization (ASO) and lower long-term development costs. While mobile developers have a legal and ethical responsibility to think about accessibility, inclusive design is simply better for business. 

To learn more, download our free eBook: The Definitive Mobile Accessibility Checklist.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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