Why mobile design means accessible design

Robin Christopherson explores why designing for mobile means designing for vision impairment or learning difficulties.

There is no distinction between being temporarily or permanently disabled when it comes to mobile computing.

Computing on the go means accessing content and services in extreme environments. On a sunny day, trying to read small text on a small screen with poor colour contrast is an inconvenience and a frustration that the average busy mobile user won’t put up with.

Now consider this: those very same frustrations are faced not occasionally but all the time by people with vision impairment, dyslexia – or who have just misplaced their reading glasses.

Learning from mobile apps

When mobile internet access first came along, people were intrigued by the ability to pinch and zoom on a webpage to make the text large and then swipe around to see the whole page. Now people demand that websites appear simple and clear on a small screen without the need for a lot of scrolling: simplicity they're used to in their mobile apps.

Having a website that is simple enough to use for you to buy a gift for someone in two minutes while on the move will also be a gift for people with a learning difficulty or disability, who would otherwise struggle with complexity.

Temporarily able-bodied

The parallels are endless. Imagine you are driving and you can’t interact with your phone for any length of time. This makes you effectively temporarily physically and visually impaired.

The choices of voice command and speech output that many apps offer are things that users who are permanently physically or visually impaired also benefit from, or wholly rely upon as their main method of operation. Both groups experience the same benefits when these services work well – and experience the same frustrations when they do not.

In the US, the disabled community have a word for the able-bodied. They call them TABs (standing for 'Temporarily Able-Bodied'): an increasingly apt description, given an aging population, but also a phrase that has particular significance for mobile computing, as we have just seen.

Designing for shrinking screens

Over the next few years, screens are going to get smaller (Google Glass and smartwatches) and environments even more extreme as people are able to interact with their wearable technologies in situations where you wouldn’t even be able to take your phone out of your pocket.

There is no distinction between being temporarily or permanently disabled when it comes to mobile computing – and the sooner everyone realises that the better. Never forget: your older or disabled customers have real money to spend, and lots of choice where to spend it!

Words: Robin Christopherson

Robin Christopherson is a founding member and head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. The organisation specialises in accessibility auditing and disabled user testing. This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 257.