Q&A: Developer tools and mobile app accessibility

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 1 Jun 2015

Frances West, Chief Accessibility Officer at IBM, on what mobile app developers are doing right and doing wrong when it comes to mobile app accessibility.

Frances spoke to Media Access Australia ahead of chairing a session on Development Tools to Ensure Mobile Apps Accessibility at the M-Enabling conference (link is external), being held 1-2 June 2015 in Washington DC.

You’re chairing a session on Development Tools to Ensure Mobile Apps Accessibility. Could you give us your thoughts on the current state of mobile app accessibility?

The proliferation of mobile devices, along with a global mobile workforce now exceeding one billion, is compelling companies to rapidly transform their mobile development models. However, models that begin with transactional requirements and end with user testing often fail to deliver expected levels of usability and accessibility. With mobile app usage up 76 per cent over last year, time to market is just as critical as getting usability and accessibility right from the outset. After all, 65 per cent of people (link is external) said they would not purchase products when a mobile app disappoints them.

What are mobile app developers doing right and doing wrong when it comes to mobile app accessibility?

I love to hear when developers are incorporating accessibility at the beginning and then doing rapid iterative testing to remediate accessibility concerns during the development phase. However, all organisations need to establish a set of best practices for mobile accessibility, including guidance and checklists, education and proper tooling, to eliminate roadblocks for those less familiar with accessibility compliance requirements.

Why should mobile app developers take accessibility seriously?

Mobile isn’t just a device. It’s your device. It’s customised for your lifestyle, habits, preferences, needs, and physical or cognitive abilities. Designing apps that can seamlessly adapt to each person’s abilities will make interactions and decisions easier and more intuitive. Also, text-to-speech, voice recognition or GPS-based technologies designed to help people with disabilities or the elderly will also benefit all mobile users when dealing with environmental or situational limitations. Accessibility isn’t a niche technology; it’s designed to help everyone.

Could you discuss tools developers could use to improve the accessibility of their apps?

IBM recently released the Mobile Accessibility Checker (link is external), an automated testing engine for mobile hybrid and native iOS and Android application development environments. It helps developers and designers identify and resolve mobile usability and accessibility issues early in the development cycle—such as lack of description, low colour contrast or limitations to keyboard navigation and focus. Third parties have started to integrate this technology into their accessibility platforms.

Could you discuss software development practices or approaches that could improve accessibility?

There are three important approaches to consider:

1) Make accessibility an integral function of your organisation’s design and development process and thinking. This helps designers develop a deeper understanding of how physical, cognitive and situational disabilities affect the use of a product.

2) Use automated accessibility testing tools. Testing early in the development process to find and correct accessibility conformance issues has the potential to save valuable time and budget.

3) Gather stakeholder feedback, especially from persons with disabilities. Get the app into the hands of all your end users to ensure it delivers an optimal user experience.

Final thoughts on mobile apps and accessibility?

Accessibility no longer means compliance. It has become a mainstream requirement that can transform the business. Therefore every part of the organisation should be involved in creating a holistic strategy for embedding accessibility across various aspects of the entire enterprise—from processes to product development to the culture—in order to better manage compliance, improve the user experience on any device, and create an inclusive workplace environment.