Accessibility: 3 Mobile Features that Increase Usability for Everyone

glasses looking out

Think about your day-to-day activities. What do you do? Where do you go? Would it be as easy and simple to go through the motions for someone who has a visual impairment or other accessibility need? This isn’t something that we tend to think about: how accessible is this task or action? Is there a solution?

Just because we don’t consider the existence of these features, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The reality is that accessibility features are included in many aspects of day-to-day life. For example, ramps leading into buildings, braille signage indicating the floor of a building in an elevator, or assisted listening devices in a movie theater. People don’t tend to notice accessibility features if they don’t have to directly engage with these tools.

Or do they?

Beyond day-to-day accessibility features in the real world, mobile and web technology is incorporating features that users with accessibility needs can utilize. The presence of these features gives another aspect for designers and developers to consider when building applications with a range of usability for both users with and without accessibility needs. In large part, what makes for good usability is good readability of content on a screen. Below are 3 mobile features that can be manipulated in the “Accessibility” section of your phone’s general settings (General → Settings) to increase a product’s accessibility for those who are visually impaired.

general accessibility settings

Look to your phone’s General Settings to find Accessibility features.

Typography

Several aspects of type contribute to the readability of an app, which of course contributes to how easy or difficult a device is to use. While design best practices ensure typographical hierarchy and that text size and scale fit well to a phone if the user still can’t interact well with the text, accessibility features help increase  the size and boldness of text. On iOS, there is a System Font Size that is set at a default but can be changed in a phone’s Settings (Settings–>General–>Accessibility).  These attributes are especially helpful for elderly users who for example, may not have experienced visual impairments for most of their lives but are adapting to living with visual impairments in older age.

larger text for accessibility

Be sure to turn on the function that allows dynamic type to adjust the size of font you see.

Color

Like type size, most phones also have a default color palette that can be manipulated for greater accessibility. On iOS, you can control the white point of the display, substitute colors, and even use a grayscale if desired (Android has similar functionalities). When considering visual impairments, desaturating the colors of the screen can help designers understand the perception of users experiencing color blindness. For this reason, it’s important that specific user interface elements don’t rely too heavily on colors to indicate a user’s intended action.

invert colors iOS

Turn on the invert color function to see your phone in an entirely new light.

Zoom

Text isn’t the only aspect of a phone that users can make bigger. The zoom function on a phone is especially helpful for visually impaired users. iOS has a built in function that is independent of apps which allows a user to triple tap a phone and zooms everything on the phone. Other similar options include adjusting the Display Scale and using Magnifier to zoom items in the real world.

Testing for Accessibility

It’s not as simple as checking a box before you ship your apps. It’s important to test and even more important that accessibility features are based on research and not assumptions. That being said, how do you go about testing to ensure that your application’s features have a high rate of usability?

We’ve found that the best products are created when we bring our user research and user testing to people that specifically have the impairments we are building for. When it came to building the BlindWays app for Perkins School for the Blind, it was imperative to our process that we collaborated side by side with users with varying degrees of visual impairments.

Which apps and features do you use?

Now that you’ve learned a little about accessibility features that exist right below your nose, do you think your interactions with these apps will change? Keep in mind that color and contrast, typography, and zoom are just a few of the elements that exist in mobile technology to increase accessibility and that others, including VoiceOver, are also extremely useful. If you have an idea for an app that helps to increase accessibility, whether for visually impaired users or otherwise, please get in touch.