Making Mobile Applications Accessible

      Application accessibility is not something often considered by many mobile application developers. In 2014 there are approximately 1.75 billion smartphone users which is set to increase to 2.5 billion by 2017. According to the World Health Organization there are around 1 billion people globally who experience some form of disability. There can be little doubt that a number of individuals with some kind of physical or mental disability are similarly mobile device users. Thus it is an important topic for developers to consider if they want to increase their app’s marketability, as well as to cater to the specific needs of various users.

      Mobile users may need accessibility options for a number of cognitive or physical disabilities including visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, and cognitive impairment. User’s disabilities can vary in terms of severity as well as type, thus it is important to understand how different features and formats can be useful to users with different disabilities.

      Visually impaired users include individuals who are blind, have poor vision, or are color blind just to name a few. Having options to increase the size of text, buttons, or images can assist with those who are have difficulty seeing and is also useful for users who are blind as it makes selecting the correct button or link significantly easier. Text to speech and other auditory based forms of accessibility are the most useful in making mobile applications usable for visually impaired users, as well as using voice recognition and speech to text for text input. For color blind users it is important to provide an option to switch to a monochromatic color scheme or avoiding colors that are difficult to distinguish between for individuals who are red-green or blue-yellow color blind. Understanding the way in which a color blind user may see certain colors can be helpful, as it can easily be overlooked when designing a layout. Another option is to include specific patterns for usable features so they can be distinguished between. The image below has colors that for color blind users can easily be mistaken as similar colors, but adding patterns makes each button easily identifiable.

      Users with disabilities benefit the most from having options to convert audible features to text, or adding subtitles to videos. Popup notification and vibrating alerts are important to notify users in lieu of audio alerts. For video playback having sign language can act as a universal translation for hearing impaired users who can read a language that differs from the language used for closed captioning. Finally, having options for increased volume or mono audio assists users with hearing aids and a lack of hearing in only one ear.

      For the physically handicapped the most difficult task are typically related to performing touch screen based gestures such as pinch and zoom, selecting buttons, and scrolling. Many of these hindrances can be overcome by utilizing voice recognition to operate the device hands free. More advanced forms of accessibility assistance include eyeball tracking and touch free gestures. Some users may find it easier to use a stylus, and for developers increasing the size of buttons and scroll bars can help users with physical disabilities use their application with fewer incorrect selections.

      Individuals with cognitive impairments may have issues relating to their attention span, memory retention, information analysis, computation, communication, and poor reading skills. While these users may not need any physical forms of accessibility aid when interfacing with mobile applications, other features can make an application more user-friendly.

      Simplifying the layout of the app itself can assist in making it more intuitive and make performing app functions easier. Text-to-speech in conjunction with highlighting text as it is read out loud is useful for users with reading difficulties and low attention spans as it can help these users focus on the text. Auto-filling fields can make data entry easier, and not having time restrictions on app tasks will reduce the stress for users who may be slower at using mobile applications. Overall, many of the other accessibility features mentioned for users with visual, hearing, and physical disabilities can help users with cognitive impairment.

      It may seem like adding accessibility features is an additional task that only increases the time it takes for an app to move from development to the marketplace, but being user conscious and providing these options can make a significant difference for users with any kind of disability.