July 3, 2013

Designing Apps for Everyone

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 5

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By Charles Perry

What if we lived in a world without the iPhone, where we didn’t have the Internet in our pockets and the world at our fingertips? What if we couldn’t instantly check the Web to settle a bar bet, or get driving directions to our destination after we had already left home? What if we didn’t have the instant access to information that we all now take for granted? For millions of people with disabilities, these aren’t just hypothetical questions. It’s their reality. Many of the apps that most of us take for granted simply can’t be used by those with disabilities like vision and motor impairments. As a result, they’ve been shut out of many of the conveniences of mobile information that we take for granted.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The iPhone is a wonderful device and Apple has done amazing things to make mobile software accessible to those with disabilities, but a lot of iOS developers don’t realize that they have to do their part as well. There are lots of decisions that need to be made in the process of designing an app, and the cumulative effect of all those decisions can make a profound difference on whether those with disabilities can make effective use of an app or not. But if making an app accessible requires effort on the part of developers and designers, the natural question to ask is, “Why bother?” After all, accessibility is a feature, and features take time—time to plan, time to implement, and time to test. Why should those who build apps take the time needed to make sure that their software is as accessible as possible?

I would hope that developers and designers would implement accessibility in their apps simply because it’s the right thing to do. More so than most, those who create mobile software should recognize the power of the ubiquitous information and communication that their apps make possible. This is not just a matter of whether or not someone can play the hottest new game. Accessible apps make it possible for those with disabilities to make efficient use of public transportation and to more easily find jobs. Accessible apps make it easier for those with disabilities to access news and government records so they can remain active and engaged citizens. Accessible apps empower those with disabilities to remain self-sufficient and independent. Through their work, app creators have the opportunity to improve the lives of millions, and it would be a shame if they failed to take advantage of that opportunity.

But even app creators who aren’t motivated by altruism should be motivated by simple self-interest. Chances are that the authors of today’s apps will someday need accessible software themselves. It’s just a fact of life. The older we are, the more likely we are to experience vision loss, become hard of hearing, have motor disabilities, and suffer cognitive decline. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, people who are at least 80 years old have a 70% chance of experiencing a disability of some kind. To be blunt, as we age, we either become disabled or we die.

Today’s app developers and designers need to ask themselves what they want the world that they grow old in to look like. Do they want a future where they can continue to use apps and online conveniences to improve their daily life? Or do they want to live in a future where their aging eyes and dimming sight keep them from enjoying life to the fullest? If today’s developers prefer the former future to the latter, if they want a future where they can continue to use their smartphones into their old age, they had better get busy building that future today. By making their own apps accessible, and by helping to build a culture among developers and designers in which accessibility is treated as a first-class, non-negotiable feature, today’s app creators can help ensure that they will never be locked out of the technology that they now take for granted.

So once the decision has been made to make an app accessible, how should a developer or designer go about it? That’s a complicated question, but if I could give just one piece of advice to those getting started, it would be: Follow the HIG. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines define the standard look and feel of iPhone and iPad apps, but they are also based on solid accessibility and usability research. The HIG’s suggestions with regards to the size of touch targets, screen organization, and the behavior of controls are all excellent starting places for making sure that an app is as accessible as possible to people who have a variety of disabilities.

But there are other easy things that can be done to make an app more accessible to those with visual impairments in particular. By choosing fonts that are large, legible, and contrast strongly with the background, app designers can drastically improve the ability of those with low vision to read text in an app. Designers should also keep in mind the different ways that people perceive color, particularly those with color blindness. This becomes even more important when color is used to convey information. Finally, developers should take the time to implement VoiceOver in their apps.

VoiceOver is an incredibly powerful technology that makes apps accessible to those who are blind and visually impaired, and best of all, it’s very easy to implement in iOS apps. By taking the time to set just a few values, developers can ensure that their apps are available to the large community of iOS users who have vision impairments.

Apple recently previewed iOS 7, which introduces a look that is radically different from earlier versions. As a result, a lot of developers and designers are going to be completely rethinking and overhauling the user interfaces of their iPhone and iPad apps in the next few months. I suggest that this is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to think about accessibility. It’s an opportunity to implement VoiceOver. It’s an opportunity to help build a future where everyone can take advantage of the easy access to information that mobile software provides. It’s an opportunity to do the right thing, and it’s an opportunity that I hope all iOS developers and designers will take advantage of.