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painting of diverse hands with accessibility mobile phone apps

ADA & WCAG Compliance Standards Guide for Mobile Apps

David Gibson

It goes without saying that American live on their phones. However for many seniors and people with disabilities (PWD), many apps are not accessible. Not only are such apps in violation of the ADA and anti discrimination laws in a few states, but they’re also missing a substantial market opportunity. For these reasons mobile app accessibility is becoming a greater focus for companies able to see accessibility, not as a cost or a contraint, but an opportunity.

Understanding the Mobile Accessibility Demographic Landscape

The numbers speak for themselves. In the United States, approximately 61 million adults live with a disability, according to the CDC. This substantial group has an estimated $490 billion in disposable income, highlighting a significant market opportunity for businesses prioritizing accessibility.

Beyond people with disabilities, another key demographic to consider is seniors. In the United States Baby Boomers hold about 70% of all disposable income in the US. There's often substantial overlap between these groups, as many experience changes in vision, hearing, motor skills, and cognitive abilities as they age.

Baby Boomers: Our First Digital Seniors

Boomers are the first generation to age into senior status with significant digital experience. They've witnessed and adapted to the digital revolution firsthand, from the advent of personal computers to the rise of smartphones. 

This unique position makes Boomers a pivotal demographic for mobile accessibility:

  1. Tech-Savvy Seniors: Many Boomers are comfortable with technology and expect to use digital services in their daily lives.
  2. Significant Spending: Boomers spend more on consumer goods and services than any other generation, accounting for nearly $548 billion in annual spending. This level of consumer activity underscores the importance of ensuring that digital services, including mobile apps, are accessible to this generation.
  3. Diverse Needs: As they age, Boomers experience a range of accessibility needs, from minor visual impairments to more significant disabilities. Addressing these needs through **mobile app accessibility** can open up a vast and engaged market.

The combination of their digital literacy, substantial disposable income, and significant consumer spending makes Baby Boomers a key demographic for businesses looking to expand their market reach through accessible mobile applications.

Common Challenges in Mobile App Usage

Of course there’s a wide range of user experiences offered with mobile apps. Some good, some not so good. When we speak to the need of mobile app accessibility for seniors and PWD, these are some common barriers they face:

  1. Vision impairments and screen readability: Many users struggle with small text, low contrast, and complex visual layouts. This is particularly relevant for those experiencing age-related vision changes.
  2. Hearing loss and audio content: Difficulty in perceiving audio cues or understanding video content without proper captioning. Age-related hearing loss is common among seniors.
  3. Motor skill changes and touch interactions: Precise tapping, swiping, or multi-finger gestures can be challenging for users with limited dexterity, including many dealing with arthritis or other age-related conditions.
  4. Cognitive load and complex interfaces: Overly complicated app structures or workflows can be confusing and frustrating, especially for users dealing with cognitive changes or those less familiar with certain tech conventions.

Addressing these challenges isn't just about compliance—it's about creating a better user experience for everyone. This is where mobile accessibility guidelines and standards come into play.

Mobile App Standards & Guidelines For ADA Compliance

When it comes to mobile accessibility, mobile apps (like websites) must conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), now in version 2.2 as of November 2023. These international guidelines apply to mobile web content, mobile web apps, native apps, and hybrid apps.

Key aspects of mobile WCAG compliance include:

  1. WCAG 2.2 for Mobile Apps: The latest version includes specific considerations for mobile accessibility. Achieving WCAG compliance ensures that your app is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for all users.
  2. Mobile-Specific Considerations: While the core principles remain the same, mobile apps need to address unique aspects like touch target size, device orientation, and consistent navigation across different screen sizes.
  3. ADA Compliance for Mobile Apps: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that businesses make their digital properties, including mobile apps, accessible to people with disabilities. While the ADA doesn't provide specific technical standards, courts have established WCAG as a benchmark for accessibility.

Conducting a thorough mobile accessibility audit is crucial in ensuring that your app meets these guidelines and legal requirements. An audit can reveal areas for improvement and help prioritize accessibility enhancements.

The Business Case for Mobile Accessibility

Implementing mobile accessibility isn't just about avoiding legal issues—it's a smart business move. Here's why:

  • Expanded Market Reach: By making your app accessible, you're opening doors to millions of potential users who might otherwise be excluded.
  • Improved User Experience: Many accessibility features, such as clear navigation and readable text, benefit all users, not just those with disabilities. Accessibility is the pinnacle of Usability.
  • Brand Reputation: Companies known for their inclusive design are often viewed more favorably by consumers and partners alike.
  • Innovation Driver: The constraints of designing for accessibility often lead to innovative solutions that can set your app apart in the marketplace.

Key Elements of Accessible Mobile App Design

To create truly accessible mobile apps that cater to PWD and seniors, businesses need to focus on several key design elements. These features not only improve mobile accessibility but often enhance usability for all users:

  • Larger Text and Scalable Font
    • Implement text resizing options within the app
    • Use relative font sizes to ensure text scales appropriately across devices
    • Provide sufficient contrast between text and background colors
  • High Contrast and Color Considerations
    • Offer high contrast mode or themes
    • Avoid using color alone to convey information
    • Ensure color choices work for users with color vision deficiencies
  • Simple, Intuitive Navigation
    • Follow the concept of Don’t Make Me Think
    • Design clear, consistent navigation patterns
    • Provide easily identifiable back buttons and home screens
    • Implement a logical heading structure for screen reader users
  • Voice Commands and Screen Readers
    • Ensure compatibility with built-in screen readers like VoiceOver and TalkBack
    • Provide alternative text for images and icons
    • Support voice command functionality for key app features
  • Haptic Feedback and Multi-Modal Interactions
    • Implement haptic feedback for important actions or notifications
    • Provide multiple ways to interact with app features (e.g., touch, voice, gesture)
  • Customizable User Interface
    • Allow users to adjust interface elements like button size or spacing
    • Provide options to reduce motion and animations
    • Enable user-set preferences for notifications and alerts

By incorporating these elements into your mobile app design, you're not only improving mobile app accessibility but also creating a more user-friendly experience for all your customers, regardless of age or ability.

Success Stories: Companies Leading in Mobile Accessibility

Let's look at some real-world examples of companies that have successfully prioritized mobile accessibility in their app development:

  • Uber
    Uber has made significant strides in making its ride-sharing app accessible. They've implemented features like VoiceOver support, high-contrast colors, and the ability to request rides for passengers with service animals.
    More about Uber's Accessibility.

  • Bank of America
    Bank of America has focused on making its mobile banking app accessible to all users. The app includes features like customizable text sizes, voice-guided navigation, and compatibility with screen readers.
    More about Bank of America's Accessibility

  • BBC News
    The BBC News app has been praised for its accessibility features, including customizable text sizes, a high-contrast mode, and full compatibility with screen readers.
    More about BBC Mobile Accessibility Guidelines

These real-world examples demonstrate that investing in mobile app accessibility can lead to improved user experiences, expanded market reach, and enhanced brand reputation. They show how major companies across different sectors are recognizing the importance of accessibility in their mobile strategies.

Implementing Mobile Accessibility: A Strategic Approach

To successfully implement mobile accessibility in your organization, consider the following strategic approach:

  • Make Accessibility a Core Business Value
    • Include accessibility goals in your company's mission and vision statements
    • Ensure buy-in from leadership and stakeholders across departments
  • Involve PWD and Seniors in the Design Process
    • Conduct user testing with diverse age groups and abilities
    • Create an advisory panel of PWD and seniors to provide ongoing feedback
  • Train Development Teams in Inclusive Design & WCAG Compliance
    • Provide regular training on WCAG requirements and general accessibility best practices
    • Encourage developers to use assistive technologies themselves to better understand user needs
    • Have designers and developers get certified with IAAPA 
  • Integrate Accessibility into Your Development Lifecycle
    • Include accessibility checkpoints in your quality assurance process
    • Conduct regular mobile app accessibility audits
  • Stay Updated on Evolving Standards
    • Keep abreast of updates to WCAG guidelines for mobile apps
    • Monitor changes in mobile app ADA compliance requirements

By adopting this strategic approach, businesses can ensure that mobile accessibility becomes an integral part of their app development process, leading to more inclusive products and a stronger market position.

Wrap Up

As we've seen, mobile accessibility is not just a compliance issue or a niche concern—it's a significant business opportunity. By focusing on the needs of people with disabilities and seniors, including the tech-savvy Baby Boomers, companies can tap into a vast and growing market.

Implementing mobile app accessibility compliance brings numerous benefits: expanded market reach, improved user experience for all customers, enhanced brand reputation, and reduced legal risks. The success stories we've explored demonstrate that investing in accessibility can lead to tangible business results.

Remember, creating accessible mobile apps isn't just about compliance—it's about building better products that everyone can use and enjoy. It's time for businesses to recognize the power of inclusive design and unlock the full potential of mobile accessibility.