How would you feel if you entered a store to find that the products, the tills or even the staff are walled off to you by invisible barriers? Frustratingly most people seem to be able to walk through these barriers and conduct business without issue but you’re stuck and unable to do what you want to do. Chances are that you’d decide to leave and not go back to that store again, aren’t they? This is the experience of many users with disabilities who enter a website with the express purpose, or at least interest, in purchasing a product or service.

This piece is part of our ongoing guide to utilising Digital Psychology best practice when creating digital products like mobile applications or websites. In a previous article we’ve discussed how a combination of motivation and ability facilitate users taking the actions you want them to take, like signing up for your content or buying a product/service from you.

Today we’ll be taking a deep dive into the ability portion of the equation and how best to approach users who could have issues accessing your content in the way you might originally envision.

Why does mobile app accessibility matter?

According to the WHO, over a billion people, or around 15% of the world’s population, live with some form of disability. Particularly pertinent to designers of digital products like websites and mobile applications is that 217 million people have a moderate to severe vision impairment. What’s more is that this number is expected to rise (potentially to triple!) due to an aging population and population growth.

At its core there are four groups of disabilities, which can be either temporary or permanent, consisting of physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental illness. Any one of these can inhibit a user’s ability to use your digital product or to follow the carefully laid user journeys you’ve created. Over 70% of UK websites and apps are not compliant with accessibility laws. With nearly 12 million people in the United Kingdom with additional needs, this could add up to roughly a fifth of your users that are unable to access the full potential of your product, or even use it at all. Think about the examples below:

  • Physical – Paralysis, fine motor control issues, amputees
  • Sensory – Blindness, deafness, autism
  • Intellectual – Developmental delays, Down syndrome
  • Mental Illness – Schizophrenia, depression

On top of the above it’s also important to think about age and experience-related ability issues. Older people may have age-related disabilities while also lacking the experience using digital products;. This includes indicators and triggers that younger people have learned over a lifetime of using mobile apps and website and now take for granted.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the ubiquity of the internet. While a couple of decades ago the internet was the preserve of hardcore tech fanatics and academics, it’s now (especially post-pandemic) the most likely place for people to shop, socialise, gather news, consume media, apply for jobs, conduct research, book holidays and far more. As this becomes more normal it becomes less acceptable for content to be gated off by ability-based barriers.

Not only this but when your app isn’t accessible you’re cutting out a significant portion of the market and potentially missing out on valuable customers. As a business can you really afford to allow your more accessibility-savvy competitors such an easy quick win?

What are the laws about mobile app accessibility?

If you’re following best practice in relation to usability and accessibility, your website should fall well above the barriers for entry in terms of the law. However, it’s worth ensuring that you don’t let the details slip.

Depending on where you are in the world, you’re likely to be covered by different legislation. As always with digital products, you’re likely to be governed by the laws of both where your business is located and the primary location or locations where you conduct business. So if you’re based in the UK but a significant amount of your business is conducted in the US or the EU then you’ll need to ensure you’re meeting your obligations against their laws as well. (We won’t go into detail beyond these as meeting your requirements in the US, EU and UK should put you in good stead for most places around the world as The UK and the EU have some of the more stringent rules around accessibility.)

In the United Kingdom

For the most part, accessibility in regards to digital products in the UK is covered by the Equality Act 2010, which is a piece of legislation designed to protect individuals from unfair treatment and promote a fairer and more equal society. This legislation is not specifically relating to digital products and actually covers all business dealings where you could be dealing with serving users with disabilities. By law it is expected that you will make “reasonable adjustments” in order to make your product accessible, as well as to anticipate these requirements.

As of writing, this law has not been tested (at least in regards to website accessibility) and any legal actions so far have been settled out of court. This means that, as it stands, there is no legal precedent around what may or may not constitute “reasonable adjustments”.

However, public sector websites, following new accessibility regulations in 2019, do need to meet certain accessibility standards (WCAG 2.1 at level AA — more on these later) and it’s fair to say that businesses who meet these standards would have a pretty robust case should they wind up in court in relation to accessibility.

In the United States

Those with disabilities in the United States are covered by the American Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III. Similarly to the UK’s Equality Act, this is a blanket legislation covering all businesses and not solely digital led ones.

Unlike the UK, however, this legislation has been tested in the courts and even sprung its own cottage industry in relation to digital accessibility. Following a successful case (Gil v Winn-Dixie, 2017), a number of enterprising individuals have launched ADA Title III lawsuits against companies based on their websites’ failures when checked against common automated accessibility tools. Thanks to this, the number of Title III lawsuits relating to website accessibility grew by 177% from 814 in 2017 to 2,258 in 2018.

Similarly to the UK, requirements for Governmental websites in the United States have been recently revised (in 2017) with a requirement to meet certain accessibility standards (WCAG 2.0 at level AA in the case of the US) so meeting these guidelines would likely prove a strong defence if required.

In the European Union

The European Union (EU) Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications requires EU member states to make sure their websites and mobile apps meet common accessibility standards. The Directive requires that public sector organisations across the EU take steps to make sure their websites are “Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust in line with WCAG 2.0,” so again this would provide a robust defence.

What are the WCAG principles and how can I use them?

The WCAG (or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to use their Sunday name) are recognised as the best indicator of how your digital product is faring in relation to best practice and, as noted above, will most likely cover you legally given that the UK, the US and the EU use these guidelines as a baseline for their own public service guidelines. These are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C) as part of their Web Accessibility Initiative and are a wholly independent measure of how your digital product measures up. Though designed originally for websites, the WCAG principles also work perfectly well with mobile applications or other digital products.

The best way to ensure your mobile application matches up to the WCAG principles is, luckily, pretty simple. You can just load up their handy quick reference guide and use this as the basis for your testing of your current app or designs. This is a pretty time consuming task, however, and often businesses will outsource it to an agency partner (like Indiespring) or to an accessibility specialist who will have more experience in this field.


If it's this simple, why isn't everybody doing it?

Frankly, it really isn’t difficult to follow the WCAG principles. However, for a long time there has been a prevailing opinion in UX circles that making concessions to accessibility can lead to a poorer overall User Experience. While it’s true that you’ll need to amend the way you work and keep accessibility in mind while designing products, working within this space isn’t so prescriptive as to destroy the experience for users without a disability. A number of changes can be made which operate entirely in the background and are almost imperceptible to able bodied users. We’ve added this as a handy checklist which you can download and use against your own app or website.

Another resource that’s worth looking into is the World Wide Web Consortium’s updated list of accessibility tools which we use against our own digital products. Using these tools it’s possible for you to bring your own digital products up to scratch in terms of accessibility.