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Change creates opportunities. These days, the digital landscape is evolving rapidly. The increasingly connected world we live in is bringing more people online, including blind and deaf users, users with reading disabilities, and users with physical differences. Insuring that digital platforms are fully accessible to all of these consumers represents a major challenge, to be sure. But brands that embrace such change can elevate themselves and their products, by seizing the opportunity to grow, evolve and lead.
Failing to account for change, on the other hand, is a losing strategy. A high-profile and successful lawsuit against Domino’s, and a handful of other recent accessibility cases, has pushed the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the top of technology news feeds. And while litigation around ADA compliance has long centered on “traditional” websites, massive implications for mobile apps and app lifecycle management are coming down the pike.
Among the myriad tasks involved in mobile app lifecycle management, strict compliance to ADA rules, for most brands, falls towards the bottom of the to-do list. Achieving 100% accessibility coverage for a mobile product can be a Herculean task without an urgent pay-off. As a result, other priorities have come first.
But that needs to change. As mobile connectivity increases and the “internet of things” expands, ADA compliance for mobile apps must become a top priority. Brands need to consider accessibility in terms of risk tolerance, yes, but also in terms of how accessibility can make its products more inclusive, sustainable, and primed for growth.
“Denying 20% of the population access to mobile products is not a future-proof strategy for any brand.”
Beyond minimizing legal risk, making mobile apps accessible delivers business and ethical benefits that are key to a healthy digital future.
The first is cost. Proactive ADA compliance will definitely require a commitment of budget and resources, but delaying it is a recipe for disaster and budget woes.
The second reason to emphasize accessibility is to make mobile apps more inclusive. We at Heady believe that inclusivity is a marker of truly useful, best-in-class mobile products. Apps that are not usable by all will find that there’s a ceiling to their growth and success.
And finally, increasing the accessibility of mobile products also increases their sustainability. 56.7 million Americans (or nearly 20% of the population) live with a disability, according to the U.S. Census. Denying 20% of the population access to mobile products is not a future-proof strategy for any brand.
Designing for accessibility involves four domains: vision, hearing, physical, and literacy or learning impairments. To better serve populations living with any of these disabilities, the possibilities for mobile app enhancements are nearly limitless. Some huge global brands like Airbnb and Google are leading the way on innovation, introducing new features that go far beyond UX and UI design.
But for the 99.9% of brands with more modest goals than Google, a good place to get started is with basic adherence to ADA rules. And the simplest way to make mobile apps compliant is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
WCAG are technical standards for web experiences, published and updated by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Released in June 2018, the latest version of the guidelines is WCAG 2.1, which is
available online for free. With 12-13 guidelines, WCAG 2.1 is a critical tool for mobile app designers in creating products that are perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust—four principles of accessibility design. (You can check out more details about WCAG 2.1 here.)
In addition to W3C’s helpful guidelines, mobile app designers have one more key tool at their disposal. And it comes directly from the twin titans of mobile software. Both iOS and Android have built support for accessibility features into their default controls—and they also offer testing tools, to ensure those features work as intended. (For more on how each provider helps with ADA compliance for mobile apps: iOS and Android.)
With WCAG 2.1 and the built-in tools from iOS and Android, there’s no excuse for designers and developers to skip over accessibility in the creation of mobile products.
The desire to avoid a lawsuit is a powerful reason to emphasize ADA compliance in mobile app lifecycle management. After all, the number of digital accessibility lawsuits filed almost tripled in 2018. But there are many more reasons that brands should insist that their iOS and Android apps be readily usable by the widest possible swath of the population. And in fact, the current moment presents a unique opportunity to establish leadership when it comes to mobile app accessibility.
These days, the laws surrounding mobile app accessibility are fuzzy. Standards like WCAG 2.1 apply to online experiences and the internet in general—and do not technically govern mobile apps. But more
specific standards are likely to emerge soon around mobile products and content. When those regulations do come down, there will be a mad scramble. Lawsuits will fly, retroactive design tasks will overwhelm Trello boards, and the costs to overhaul features are likely to skyrocket.
Mobile app lifecycle management is in large part about preparing for what comes next. In this gray-area period of ADA compliance for mobile products, the time is ripe to make proactive updates that affirm those products’ sustainability. By pursuing full accessibility coverage, brands can distinguish their core mobile apps as uniquely prepared to thrive in the expanding internet of things—and uniquely able to serve users of diverse abilities and needs.
Just as much as sustainability, inclusivity in mobile app design can determine a product’s future. From fonts to photos to “invisible” design choices like focus order and tagging, developers and designers have myriad opportunities to make mobile products more inclusive. The more inclusive an app, the more useful it is. The more useful it is, the greater opportunity it has to grow and succeed.
No matter the size of the user base a brand wants to
target, there are almost certainly people within that population who live with disabilities. Failing to provide accessibility features that allow those people to use mobile apps is essentially severing their connection to the brand. (This was one of the key arguments in the Domino's lawsuit.) In addition to being ethically wrong, that’s just bad business.
Brands that take proactive steps around ADA compliance for mobile apps can set themselves and their products apart from the pack by committing to being fully, enthusiastically accessible for all.
When working with a mobile product consultancy like Heady, brands should ensure that all new product enhancements come with full accessibility and ADA compliance. Your mobile team will lead the charge on increasing the accessibility coverage of mobile products, by maintaining up-to-the-minute awareness of rules and feature updates, and building accessibility into all the code they push live.
It can be quite a different story for pre-existing app architecture, much of which is not ADA compliant. Retroactively layering accessibility features into existing products is a major undertaking, but for all of the reasons outlined above, it is absolutely worth it.
So—where to begin?
One option is to engage a mobile product consultancy like Heady. Our team then manages the process from start to finish: overseeing the accessibility audit of the product, creating a plan based on the audit’s findings, and managing the ADA compliance updates directly. Throughout, Heady provides regular reports on the changes and the overall progress towards 100% accessibility coverage.
“Retroactively layering accessibility features into existing products is a major undertaking, but for all of the reasons outlined above, it is absolutely worth it.”
Lifecycle management for mobile apps is a multi-pronged, ongoing effort. And while ADA compliance updates have long been deprioritized on lifecycle management to-do lists, a swell of attention towards the accessibility of mobile products is poised to change that trend. That’s a very good thing.
Brands have a unique opportunity in the present moment to not only minimize their legal risk but also shape their digital futures. Insisting on basic ADA compliance in their core apps and other mobile products is a crucial first step. But that’s really just scratching the surface. A focus on innovation in mobile app accessibility represents a massive market opportunity: to more deeply engage an underserved 20% of the population.