Designing Apps for Accessibility

Think about how convenient our lives have become: with a simple tap on an app, we can connect to people all over the world! With our bustling lives, it can be easy to overlook just how nice it is to live in a modern, technological society. But the same can’t be said for everyone – many people have very different experiences with technology. Sometimes, the same things that make our lives easier are a barrier for others.

With how pervasive technology is in our lives, it’s imperative that our websites and apps are inclusive for everyone, not just those that we think of as standard users. When we look at new pieces of tech, new apps, or new designs, we should be thinking to ourselves, “Is this accessible for everyone?”

Accessibility is more than just a buzzword—it’s a foundational principle that should shape the creation of digital products. Our goal should be to design apps that are inclusive and cater to as diverse of a population as possible. By adopting an accessible design approach, we not only enhance the lives of people with disabilities but also improve the usability of our designs in general.

Apps designed with accessibility in mind are designed for everyone.

Let’s shed light on a vital statistic – there are many more people with disabilities than we often think about. Roughly 15% of people worldwide have some type of physical or mental limitation. While this percentage might not seem huge, considering the global population, it actually means roughly a billion people.

In the United States, approximately 75% of adults with disabilities use the internet daily. Surprisingly, despite the widespread internet usage, a staggering 90% of websites are not accessible to people with disabilities. Nearly 98.1% of websites have noticeable issues under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, making most websites challenging for individuals with impairments.

WhatsApp was the only app rated as “highly accessible” based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which serve as the global benchmark for determining the disabled-friendliness of a website.

WhatsApp was distinguished as the only app to be “highly accessible” according to the WCAG 2.0 standards (Feb. 2023)

Accessibility, at its core, means designing digital interfaces and experiences that can be comfortably used by everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. Digital accessibility covers various design aspects, including text, color and contrast, feedback, and element size and type, among others. As we’ve mentioned, technology is here to simplify our lives. However, some types of technology are more of a hindrance than a help. Technology should be a universal right, enhancing our quality of life rather than creating obstacles. It should ensure equal opportunities for all to access information and services.

For many businesses, ensuring accessibility might seem like an extra, burdensome requirement pushed to the back of their minds. If accessibility isn’t considered in the initial app prototypes, adding it later can be seen as a tedious task, leading to cumbersome modifications. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Accessibility should prompt a reevaluation of how information is presented and facilitated, encouraging the development of user interfaces that provide a comfortable experience for everyone.

Designing for Accessibility

Now that we’ve established the importance of accessibility, let’s explore the key components of designing apps that truly cater to all users. Many factors could be considered for accessibility including neural input, voice activation, and larger screens. In this list, we are including only visual and neural impairments.

Color Selection and Contrast

One of the balancing acts that designers often need to do is to make vivid displays while at the same time making everything clear. While an early draft might cross a fantastic color spectrum, later prototypes might be forced into simple monochrome sets with only a splash of the original color here and there. Why is this?

High-contrast color schemes are essential for users with visual impairments. They ensure the text and elements stand out clearly against the background, making the contents legible. Low color contrast combinations can render content illegible and frustrating for users. Color-blind-friendly color palettes would also make a difference in your app design as it is discernible by individuals with various types of color blindness.

Evaluate your design elements to ensure they maintain an adequate contrast ratio, meeting accessibility standards. This can be a game changer for users with varying levels of visual acuity. These not only aid those with visual impairments but also ensure that your content remains accessible to a broader audience.

Feedback Mechanism Through Micro-Interactions

Catching the user’s attention could be hard, especially when we cannot rely on colors to attract it. Look for opportunities to enhance your feedback mechanisms with motion, as these can be incorporated in your designs easily and to great results. Micro-interactions, the small yet significant animated events that assist or support users within an interface, will attract the eye and result in a shift of a user’s focal point. Animated elements, including micro-interactions, can draw attention and guide users to the most important or actionable parts of the interface.

Micro-interactions provide immediate feedback to users, recognizing user’s actions. This confirmation helps users understand the outcome of their interactions, reducing uncertainty and frustration. One thing you should remember is that not all users can rely on color to understand your app. Always complement color with text, icons, or other forms to convey information. This redundancy ensures that your content remains accessible to diverse audiences.

Sizes and Elements

Apple made a new feature for Accessibility that is quite separate from the original home screen and this applied perfectly for older people.

The world’s population is aging, people are living longer, thus changing the demographics. Older people have used technology in most of their lives, making them very experienced users. However, they might have some difficulties navigating through technology later in life due to motor and visual impairments. Many older working people require quick and clear interactions
with technology. As such, making big buttons with simple text doesn’t just make a product more accessible, but also more efficient.

On the other hand, children are engaging with apps early on in their lives, and even pre-teens are learning to use programs such as Photoshop and DaVinci Resolve to make claims for TikTok or even Roblox. These young users aren’t as developed linguistically, so cramming a ton of tiny text into buttons or fields won’t help them.

Adjusting design with a broad demographic in mind serves many other goals: adequate sizing and spacing can make a world of differences. Paying attention to scaling to ensure that elements are neither too small or large is crucial for comfortable interaction with an app by its users. A well-proportioned interface is essential for a positive user experience, while designing apps with features that ensure a smooth user experience and minimize accidental taps is important for people with nervous impairments.

Text and Typography

With apps being used by older and younger people alike, as well as by those with visual impairments, the role of text and typography in accessibility becomes crucial.

Choose readable fonts that are supported all across platforms and allow users to adjust text sizes as needed. Sans-serif fonts are often preferred for digital interfaces because of their clean, simple lines, which enhance readability on screens of various sizes and resolutions.

Varying boldness and weight of text can help create a visual hierarchy within your content. Also, consider the contrast between bold and regular text to make sure it meets the accessibility standards. Correct markups and thoughtful typography will greatly improve user experience.

Normalizing Accessible Design

Designing apps for accessibility is not an option, but rather a necessity in our increasingly digital world. It’s about creating a world where technology is for everyone, regardless of their abilities and limitations.

At its core, accessible design should aim to enhance the overall experience and make a product more inclusive and user-friendly not just for those who are lucky enough to be free of any visual or motor impairment, but for any potential user. It is a noble and necessary objective towards which any product designer should be striving to whenever tasked with the challenge of developing a new product.

By prioritizing accessibility, designers and developers can contribute to creating a fairer digital world, in which the benefits of technology are accessible to all. While it may often be treated as such, accessibility in design is not a mere checklist or, worse, an afterthought. Instead, accessibility is a fundamental aspect of good design, and embracing it is not just a responsibility but a precious opportunity to create digital experiences that leave no one behind.

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Elsa Djohan Avatar

Elsa Djohan / Visual Designer @ Phase

Designing dreams part-time with a full-time passion for giraffes and creativity.