Smartphones and tablets are an integral part of our everyday lives. They help us to connect, to capture and relive precious moments with our loved ones, and to carry out the myriad of routine tasks that make up our everyday lives. For people living with disability, these devices offer far more than that: they’re an essential tool, a facilitator for independence, and a way to access information and services that may otherwise be inaccessible without assistance.
Vision Australia estimates there are currently 357,000 people in Australia who are blind, or have low vision. They project that this number will grow to 564,000 people by 2030. In Australia, roughly 8% of men and 0.4% of women have some form of colour vision deficiency.
When you consider that around one billion people — or 15% of the world’s population — experience some form of disability, it becomes hard to justify not building your mobile application with accessibility in mind.
Sadly, many mobile apps are built without accessibility in mind. Quite often, accessibility is considered as ‘nice-to-have’, rather than essential.
In May 2021, Apple published the results of a study undertaken to explore accessibility in mobile apps: Making Mobile Applications Accessible with Machine Learning. The study found that, of the applications surveyed, 94% had at least one screen that was not properly accessible.
That’s not a surprising figure, given that accessibility is generally viewed as an optional requirement during mobile app development. Businesses don’t ask for it, for many types of apps the law doesn’t require it, and it can take significant time and effort to do it well.
So, what exactly is accessibility? (or “a11y” as it is sometimes called)
According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), “Mobile Accessibility” refers to making websites and applications more accessible to people with disabilities when they are using mobile phones and other devices. Specifically, a11y describes the way products should be designed in order to be accessible for users with disabilities or impairments.
In March 2020, a survey was conducted by Vision Australia and Curtin University titled “Smartphones and equal access for people who are blind or have low vision”. The results of the survey showed that 79% of the blind community in Australia use a smartphone, and that accessibility features in apps were used by approximately 50% of participants, but that many were unaware of these apps and their capabilities.
People with permanent disabilities are not the only ones who benefit from good accessibility: temporary or situational impairments can have an impact at any age, for any length of time, and can have varying levels of severity. Examples of situational impairment include broken bones, wounds from surgical procedures, or a lost voice — it’s a wide spectrum. For some people it might be as simple as wanting to navigate an app while driving their car, or preparing a meal, all without having to touch their mobile device.
Voice assistants like Siri and Alexa enable users to navigate and manipulate apps on their devices, and are quickly becoming ubiquitous. Haptic feedback is a key part of Apple’s Human Interface guidelines, and enable devices to notify users of events through patterns of vibrations that vary in intensity.
Given the huge numbers of people who could benefit from assistive technologies, why are developers and designers not addressing this in their mobile apps? It usually comes down to some combination of the following factors:
- There are no defined accessibility standards specific to mobile applications. This makes designing and testing for accessibility hard to do right, and means that many designers and developers don’t have a good handle on how to make apps accessible.
- Making an app accessible requires additional time and effort during development, and consultation with members of the disability community to verify the results of the work, which can lead to higher production costs. These higher costs and longer timelines can make it difficult to get buy-in from business stakeholders.
- There can be conflicts with existing brand guidelines and minimalist design trends such as neumorphism that prescribe inaccessible colours and fonts.
- There is no specific legal requirement make your app accessible unless your organisation is subject to laws such as CVAA and ADA in the U.S., or other national laws such as the Equality Act in the United Kingdom.
By far, the biggest limitation is that there is no single source of truth for mobile accessibility standards.
Hopefully, this is about to change:
In 2019, the Australian Human Rights Commission made a number of proposals to ensure that products and services, especially those that use digital communications technologies, are designed inclusively. The Commission acknowledged that:
[…] innovations like real-time live captioning and smart home assistants can improve the lives of people with disability. But as technology becomes essential for all aspects of life, we also heard how inaccessible technology can lock people with disability out of everything from education, to government services and even a job.
We believe that if developers and designers had an easier, faster way to test the accessibility features of their mobile apps during development, it would make a significant difference to ensuring that those features are effective and usable for people who need them. It’s also the right thing to do.
At Itty Bitty Apps, we recognise both the importance and the difficulty of creating great accessible experiences. We do our best to keep it front of mind in the work we do, and we acknowledge there is almost always room for improvement.
Which is why we’re excited to announce that starting today Reveal includes new accessibility debugging features that allow you to put yourself in your user’s shoes. These new features make it faster to identify accessibility issues in your apps. Initially, we’ve focused on support for accessibility features helpful for vision impairment, colour blindness, motor impairment and insensitivities.
Our goal is to make Reveal the easiest, most practical way to do accessibility testing for iOS, iPadOS and tvOS app development, and we’re downright excited by the potential of what we’ve built so far.
We want to hear how you use these new features, and how you’d like to use them — this is just the beginning, and together we’re hoping that we can raise awareness about accessibility, while also improving the accessibility of as many apps as possible.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the features of this Reveal release, or jump right in and download it.