Three Things To Make Your App Stand Out When Building For Accessibility

Matthew Wee is a leader in developing mobile strategy and tactical project execution at Xtreme Labs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in five Americans — that’s 47 million people — are living with a disability. These people strive to interact with the world as normally as they can, and companies have seen how impactful it can be to make products and services accessible to these communities, both online and offline. With more consumers than ever interacting with their favorite brands on mobile devices, investing in accessible solutions is increasingly a top priority.

Since 1999 there have been definitive guidelines on what it means to be an accessible website. Web developers can turn to a host of resources to ensure that all their accessibility-related work actually results in a site that is beneficial to someone with a disability.  For mobile, the book has yet to be written. While accessibility modes and rough guidelines exist for iOSAndroidWindows Phone and Blackberry, the responsibility lies with the developer to evaluate and determine if their work has resulted in a truly useful product.

Quite a few parties have put together their own best practices on designing for accessibility. The Web Accessibility Movement started the conversation around mobile accessibility, and Accessible Tech also offers some considerations, but both have yet to define ground rules for mobile applications. Developer Matt Gemmell has also proposed some best practices for iOS and encourages fellow developers to reference Apple’s Accessibility Programming Guide.

While mobile accessibility for the web provides a great base for developers, these rules are not standard across mobile apps and devices. This lack of definitive guidelines has led to a number of good-natured attempts at accessible mobile development that only end up as headaches for the end user.  From my own experience building apps for accessibility at Xtreme Labs, here are three key areas you should consider when building apps with accessibility in mind.

1. Leverage the Power of Voice

Amongst the top 10 disabilities in the United States, nearly two million people report blindness or vision impairment, making it important to leverage a phone’s ability to not only listen to us to but also talk back. VoiceOver, which works on iOS, and Android’s Text-to-Speech allow users to listen to rather than read text. In order to help your mobile app properly “converse” with its user, it is important to consider screen position and layout, and prioritize the content that’s most important to users in your design.

A mobile app that has really done a great job of incorporating VoiceOver is The New York Times. The app enables visually impaired readers to listen to articles in full using VoiceOver.

Many mobile apps are using voice command features beyond that of VoiceOver and Text-to-Speech. Here are some examples that come to mind:

  • iComm– an app designed to help children learn to talk, has also helped those with disabilities that impair their speech to relearn how to communicate
  • Voice Phone – as the name suggests, this app allows users to dial using voice command features
  • Proloquo2Go – an assistive communication app designed to help people who do not speak to communicate with others using a series of symbols and icons to represent objects, actions, desires, etc.
  • Access American Stories – especially designed for the visually impaired user, this app serves as a companion to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, offering enlarged images and a crowd-sourced audio experience to share sights and stories of historical American landmarks.

2. Read Beyond the Text

Anything you can see with your eyes should be able to be heard with your ears. In accessibility mode, elements like labels and buttons will naturally read the text they display, but oftentimes this text only makes sense within the greater context of the screen. Without this context, button names can become meaningless.

For example, let’s consider a retail app selling multiple items, each with their own “Buy” button. Accessibility mode will read the button text back to the user, saying “Buy”. But buy what? The screen has many things it could be referring to, how would a user know what they are agreeing to “Buy?” A simple tweak to the button element is all it takes to make VoiceOver or Text-to-Speech say “Buy the red scarf.”

Keeping this in mind is especially important when labeling buttons that do not have a text element to them. For example, this problem presents itself in situations where a company logo is presented to send the user to the company’s website. For these types of buttons, the device will say the variable name of the element since a text option is not available. For many development tools the default is image1, which is not a very useful descriptor. Without taking the necessary steps to articulate what the logo button is and does, the variable name will be read aloud and the button’s true function will be difficult to understand.

3. Re-imagine Your Layout

Imagine being visually impaired and trying to navigate through the thousands of applications that make small buttons and hidden features a part of their design; it would be nearly impossible. It’s important to take time to design a layout that clearly distinguishes between different elements of the application. In addition to the obvious things like creating larger buttons, avoiding drop down menus and bringing out hidden features, you should anticipate what the user wants out of their mobile experience.

Consider CNN or any other newsreader app. Users want to read material starting from the top. When a user who is visually impaired tries to navigate through a story, they may hit the third or fourth paragraph. In accessibility mode, the device will often start reading aloud from that point as opposed to the beginning.Flipboard has also done a great job at this catering to hearing impaired users. The company has designed the app so a user can plug in headphones and have articles read like a playlist.

Mobile has overtaken desktop as a means to access information and the popularity of mobile devices today necessitates the need for apps to be built with accessibility in mind. Until we get to the point where specific guidelines are defined, building apps for accessibility can feel much like a guessing game. Apple, Android and others have laid the foundation for creating accessible apps. It’s now up to developers to catch up and capture a growing market of new consumers.

This post was originally published on Wired’s Innovation Insights blog.