Mobile Accessibility: How to Identify Your Users’ Struggles and Address Them

When we hear the word accessibility (in a mobile context) we often associate it with a visually impaired user interacting with their smartphone via VoiceOver. But accessibility is much more than that. The following article will define the term ‘accessibility’ and give you a better understanding of your user groups and their most common accessibility struggles.

Accessible design is good design - it benefits people who don’t have disabilities as well as people who do. Accessibility is all about removing barriers and providing the benefits of technology for everyone. - Steve Ballmer

When we talk about supporting accessibility features, we often think about visually impaired users who interact with their smartphones by using a screen reader, but that is just one of four areas of accessibility. If you consider adding accessibility support to your app, you should make sure that you include everyone.

Inaccessibility is proactive, so before you think about adding accessibility to your app, the first thing you should do is to ask yourself a question: "Who am I willing to exclude?" If the answer to that question is no one, read on.

In the following text, I’ll guide you through the four main categories of accessibility and cover the most important aspects for you to consider when developing accessible mobile solutions.

Please be aware that in this article I’ll be mainly focusing on the iOS accessibility features – but of course, there are similar tools and features available on Android. If you want to get a good overlook of all the Android accessibility features, check out the Android Accessibility Guide as well.

Four areas of accessibility

Vision

Vision is a broad category. About 2.2 billion people in the world are estimated to be visually impaired. For those people a screen reader is an essential tool for using their phone.The most well-known assistive technology on iOS is VoiceOver. VoiceOver reads out the text on the screen via audio output or braille output. VoiceOver is integrated into every Apple device, which means every app can be used via VoiceOver. Though this doesn’t mean that every app supports VoiceOver. Go challenge yourself and turn on VoiceOver in your phone’s accessibility settings. Try to navigate through your favourite app and if you have your own, take that one. See for yourself how easy, or hard it is to follow one user journey.

Another well-known accessibility feature is Dynamic Type. Dynamic Type allows you to change your preferred system font size. As soon as you change your preferred system font size, the system font and the font in every app (which supports Dynamic Type) will adapt. On top of that Apple provides the magnifier and the zoom functionality to support users with low vision. There are also many display accommodations for people with colour blindness or other disorders related to colour and light perception, e.g. colour filters, inverted colour mode, etc.

Auditory

About 5% of people worldwide have hearing loss. Therefore, a lot of standard iOS features often act as assistive technology for those who have trouble hearing. FaceTime and iMessage are the most commonly used tools for communication. On top of that, Apple provides a standard framework (AVFoundation) to allow for captioning and subtitles, making it easier for low hearing users to consume and enjoy the content. Additionally, there are also hearing aids made for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch which support Teletype (TTY).

With those hearing aids, the user is able to adjust the audio output to match the surrounding noise. Thanks to that, a lunch date in a high amount of ambient noise is no problem anymore. Just put your iPhone on the table, it will record the conversation and transfer it in better audio quality to your hearing aids.

Motor

Motor disabilities can be temporary (e.g. broken arm) or chronic conditions. For those with motor disabilities, Apple provides a technology called Switch Control. Switch Control works by scanning your screen and allowing you to interact with it with just a few buttons. These buttons are called switches and you can control them via touch, physical gestures, facial expressions, or even eye movements. There are three types of switches:

  1. External switch: Those can be connected to your device via Bluetooth.

  2. iPhone screen: Control your switch via a tap on your screen.

  3. Front camera: Control the switch via head movements. By moving your head, you control a pointer on the screen. This only works if your front camera is a TrueDepth camera.

There are not only three types of switches, but also three ways of selecting an item:

  1. Item scanning: Items or groups are highlighted one after the other. If a group is highlighted and the switch is triggered, highlighting continues with the items inside the group.

  2. Point scanning: With point scanning, you can select an item on the screen by pinpointing it with scanning crosshairs. You start with wide vertical crosshairs, as soon as you stop the scanning with your switch, the fine vertical crosshairs appear. If you use your switch again, you stop the fine vertical crosshairs, and the fine scanning line will appear.

  3. Manual scanning: If you have more than one switch, manual scanning is a good option for you. You can set up each switch to perform a specific action like moving forwards or backwards through items and groups.

Learning and Cognitive

The last area of accessibility is learning and cognitive. About 3% of people worldwide have an intellectual disability. For those people a lot of standard iOS features act as assistive technology. Dictation and Predictive Text helps the ones with having difficulties spelling and typing.

Guided Access is one feature that allows people with attention and sensory challenges to stay focused on the task at hand. You can use it to limit a device to keep open one specific app for a certain amount of time. Additionally, you can disable the keyboard and even deactivate touch gestures for specific areas on the screen.

If you get easily triggered by a sensory overload, you can make use of Safari‘s Reader View. This assistive technology gets rid of ads, buttons and navigation bars to make it easier to just focus on the content.

Other features like text to speech or the built in dictionary help those with learning and cognitive difficulties. Many standard iOS features like Siri, Dark Mode and Screen Time are helpful tools for those with cognitive disabilities.

Now that you know the most common accessibility issues that some of your users are struggling with, get ready for the second part of the article, where I will give you some helpful tips and tricks to make your app more accessible.



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