Baking Digital Inclusion Into Your Mobile Apps

Accessibility Starts with Empathy, and You

Rob Whitaker
Jul 24, 2019 · 7 min read

Great accessibility is more than ticking boxes, it’s remembering that each user of your service is an individual, an independent person, with their own complex needs, experiences, desires, and requirements for your app. It’s about making great experiences for as many people as possible. In Capital One’s UK Mobile teams we always want to give our customers the best experience we can, and we do as much as possible to ensure we’re not limiting access to those experiences based on customer abilities.

As an iOS engineer, I know from experience that sometimes accessibility can feel like just one of many considerations amongst the 1’s and 0’s of developing a mobile app. But prioritizing accessibility for your app means considering real people and the ways technology can have an impact on their lives. After all, for a billion people around the world, acts such as checking contrast ratios, running accessibility reporting tools, and adding accessibility labels can mean the difference between using your service or being completely shut out.

While accessibility might be the right thing to do because the law says you have to, or because it opens your business up to a whole new group of customers, mostly it’s the right thing to do because it’s the fair and moral thing to do for your customers.

What Accessibility Means for Mobile Apps

Mobile phones are full of features that many of us use every day without thinking twice. Without proper care towards the needs of individuals with disabilities, accessing these features may require significant struggle or frustration on the part of the user. FaceTime, for example, is a handy feature allowing users to see their loved ones while they’re away. Imagine if this feature didn’t exist? If you’re able bodied, you’d probably just give them a call, like people have been doing from landlines for almost 150 years. But if sign language is your main form of communication, a landline isn’t going to help.

For people whose first or primary language is sign language, FaceTime and similar video chat tools let them use a standard phone as originally designed, often for the first time. This didn’t happen because Apple ran an automated accessibility testing tool. Apple created a product that works for everyone, and by considering all their customers as individuals, created something that was a great feature for most, and essential for some.

Other examples of features that increase accessibility on mobile include virtual assistants like Google Assistant, spelling correction, predictive text, and talk-to-text. All of these features use fewer touches and require less touch accuracy; ideal for people who can’t see or touch buttons well.

What Does Disability Mean in Our Context?

It’s important as mobile developers and engineers to consider what disability really means. We all know that not all disability is visible, but how else should we define it? I find the best illustration is the change in definition provided by the World Health Organization. Their original definition is as follows: “A disability is any restriction or lack of ability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” –World Health Organization, 1980.

The WHO have worked to create an updated definition covering what disability means to those experiencing it. Visit the WHO website today and you’ll find this improved definition:

I feel this definition covers disability in a far truer sense — disability is not about someone being different, but about the barriers we build around people as a society that prevent people them from doing the things that they want. If we build steps without providing a ramp, for example, this is where we find disability. In making mobile apps, we’re in a uniquely privileged position to be able to change some of these societal interactions and build our own digital ramps.

How to Approach Inclusivity in Mobile Apps

Sometimes it can be easy to think of disability as something that someone else suffers from. But like anything else in life, disability is not binary. Disability happens in the margins of the society we create. It’s more than the person with mobility issues who struggles to use the stairs, or the person who uses a cane to navigate the world. A person with learning difficulties might struggle with paperwork, or someone who is struggling with their mental health might feel trapped by inflexibility.

Microsoft famously practices Inclusive Design, a methodology which encourages their UX teams to consider and learn from people with a range of perspectives. Inclusive design recognises that everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities, and that people adapt to their abilities and the world around them.

© Microsoft 2016 Licensed under Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)

An integral part of Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit is the Persona Spectrum. The Persona Spectrum recognises that disability is not a fixed experience — everyone’s abilities fluctuate over time, as a function of health or life events. So solving for customers with a permanent disability such as blindness means you will help other people who can’t view the screen, such as someone who’s recently had an eye operation or someone who is driving. Have you ever carried too many bags while shopping and wished your phone was easier to use without touching the screen? Or easier to use with one hand? Building experiences for those same considerations also helps people who can’t touch the screen because of motor issues or because of missing limbs.

But in creating software, this process doesn’t have to end with the design. One of the greatest skills anyone involved in making software can have is empathy. The ability to take experiences not just from your life; or those of your colleagues, friends, and family members; but those from outside your usual sphere of experience. Observing and considering how these users do, or could, use technology and identifying where exclusion lies will lead to a better experience for everyone.

“Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases” — Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit

What We Can Learn From the UK’s Basic Digital Skills

Good accessibility isn’t just about thinking of people’s disabilities; considering people’s abilities is important too. In the UK, 10% of people haven’t used the internet recently, and 8.4% of people have never used it at all. The UK government produces a list of five basic digital skills they believe are essential to using the internet. They measure these skills on a scale from 1 (never have and never will use the internet) to 9 (makes their primary income from the internet). The five skills are:

  1. Communicating — Communicate, interact, collaborate, share and connect with others.
  2. Transacting — Purchase and sell goods and services, organise your finances and use digital Government services.
  3. Problem-Solving — Increase independence and confidence by solving problems and finding solutions using digital tools.
  4. Creating — Create basic digital content in order to engage with digital communities and organisations.
  5. Managing Information — Find, manage and store digital information and content.

Taking these down to their most basic level, having these skills means you can use Google, Facebook, Amazon, Instagram, Dropbox, and can search the internet for help. As a mobile app developer, you almost certainly do these things daily, and probably take them for granted. Yet 14% of people can’t do any of these tasks, and a further 7% (making for 21% in total) are missing at least one skill. This means, if you create your app with yourself in mind, you’ll likely be creating an experience that works for experts only.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.”

Accessibility is Part of Software Craftsmanship

Making software is a craft made up of the skills, knowledge, experiences, and emotions of the people who create it. So as people involved in creating software, we should invest the same care and pride in our work as any other craftsperson. It’s important to make sure your accessibility labels are in order and are meaningful, that you have high contrast between text & backgrounds, and that your text is descriptive without being verbose — for many people this is the difference between using your app or not. And it’s great to make yourself aware of the accessibility features and APIs available on your platform. But the most impact you can have is to add compassion and empathy into your software design, and that’s something you can do regardless of your role or level.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: © 2019 Capital One. Opinions are those of the individual author. Unless noted otherwise in this post, Capital One is not affiliated with, nor endorsed by, any of the companies mentioned. All trademarks and other intellectual property used or displayed are property of their respective owners.

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