Advancing Mobile App Accessibility: 3 Key Improvements

By Michael Taylor on Mar 20, 2024
Topics: Web Accessibility, User Experience

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Today, I want to highlight an often-overlooked aspect of digital accessibility: mobile application accessibility. Almost everyone has a smartphone these days. Additionally, many purchase tablets to replace laptops and desktop systems because these sleek and portable devices have become powerful and capable. With the prevalence of smartphones and the increasing use of tablets as laptop replacements, ensuring accessibility in mobile apps is crucial. 

Personally, I am far more likely to reach for my iPhone or iPad to check my email or browse shopping sites than I am to open my laptop for these tasks. According to recent studies, the average smartphone user spends over 3 hours daily using mobile apps. Given this significant amount of time spent on mobile devices, accessibility improvements can profoundly impact user experience and inclusivity.

Historically, mobile app accessibility has lagged behind desktop website accessibility. While many companies provide well-optimized desktop experiences, their mobile apps have often fallen short. However, I've noticed a significant positive shift in recent months, with many apps receiving updates to drastically improve accessibility. I will discuss some of these positive changes in the coming sections. As always, I will center my narrative around my experience as a blind person who relies on a screen reader to navigate the web.

Better Labeling For Symbol Based Buttons

Mobile app designers often use small symbols and graphics to represent action buttons. This is typically done to conserve space and improve visual appeal. One common implementation of this practice is to use small images instead of words along the bottom tab bar of an app.

For example, a graphic of a physical wagon may represent a “Shopping Cart,” and an image of a house may denote “Home.” If these symbol-based buttons do not have a text label in the code, screen readers will not be able to locate or identify them. Luckily, I have recently noticed that most mobile applications are getting better about including correctly labeled image buttons.

Until about a month ago, I could not use one of the big box retail shopping apps because the navigation bar button icons were not labeled, making it impossible to move around the app. This app was recently updated to fix this issue, which allowed me to begin effectively using the service. Positive changes like these are improving the landscape of mobile app accessibility.

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Better Keyboard Support

Though this may seem strange, many assistive technology dependents use a physical keyboard with their mobile devices, particularly tablets. Combining touch navigation with keyboard input is often beneficial to take full advantage of the best of both worlds, especially for interactions like typing and scrolling. I use a keyboard case with my iPad regularly. In the past, most mobile apps did not support keyboard input or navigation. The touch screen was the only way to interact with the app’s interface.

I have found that more and more apps are being optimized to support physical keyboards. For example, I can now use my iPad’s screen reader keystrokes to quickly scroll through the transaction list in my banking app while simultaneously using touch gestures to highlight and mark certain transactions for future review. Accessibility features like these are bringing mobile app accessibility on par with desktop site accessibility.

One thing that I want to note here is that when it comes to apps, keyboard input is not intended to replace touch navigation but rather complement it. If the accessibility of the touch interface is not rock solid, keyboard optimization will do little to create an intuitive and usable final product.

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Improved Form and Text Field Interaction

Traditionally, one of the most challenging parts of using a mobile app with a screen reader has been filling out forms or text fields. Because mobile devices often have small screens, the virtual keyboard will often cover half or more of the display, making it impossible to access the content behind the keyboard with a screen reader. For example, I recently signed up for an online shopping app account. The first, last, and email fields were only visible on the screen. The remaining input fields disappeared behind the virtual keyboard, making it impossible to advance to the following field. I am glad app developers have found a way to combat this significant accessibility shortcoming.

A small “Next” button is placed above the top row of letters on the keyboard. Activating this button moves the screen reader cursor to the following text field in the form. Beside the “Next” button is a “Dismiss” button that hides the keyboard if desired.

This is a simple but incredibly effective change that virtually eliminates one of the most common accessibility challenges associated with mobile applications. Hopefully, this feature will become standard soon.

→ Click here to use AQA and find out if your website is accessible. 

Investing in Mobile App Accessibility is Better for Customers and Better for Your Business

As someone who enjoys using mobile apps, I am glad to experience improved accessibility in this space finally. Given that many people only use smartphones and tablets these days, app accessibility and usability should be treated with the same level of importance as desktop website accessibility. As the landscape of digital accessibility evolves, companies should embrace and prioritize inclusive design practices, particularly within their mobile applications.

By recognizing the importance of accessibility and implementing ongoing improvements, companies can enhance the user experience for individuals with disabilities, tapping into new markets and previously underserved demographics. Accessible apps can improve my experience with a brand, make me feel more loyal to a company, and provide a better user experience. 

Ultimately, investing in mobile app accessibility isn't just a matter of social responsibility—it's also a strategic decision that can benefit your business. Companies proactively investing in accessibility can position themselves as leaders in creating genuinely inclusive technologies for everyone. Those are the kinds of companies I look for when purchasing products online. 

Editors Note: This is a guest post from our marketing contributor, Michael Taylor. Michael is blind and uses a screen reader to navigate the web. This post reflects his opinions and experiences. 

For further reading on related topics, you may also like Michael's posts- Mobile App Accessibility: What Blind Customers Want You to Know or Web Accessible Button Design for Screen Readers.

Read more about Michael and some other posts on his experience online here.

Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor

My name is Michael Taylor and I am a marketing intern at Usablenet. I graduated from Hofstra University with a bachelors of business administration in marketing. I am blind, and use assistive technology each and every day to access the digital world. As a result, I am very passionate about web accessibility and usability. My experiences with the good and bad of accessible technology give me a unique perspective that allows me to make meaningful contributions in the digital accessibility field. During my marketing internship at Usablenet, I hope to raise awareness about digital accessibility by providing accounts of my personal experiences and suggestions and recommendations about what works well and what does not. Though I am only beginning on my professional journey, I aim to pursue a long-term career in the digital accessibility field.

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