How to ensure your public sector mobile app is accessible by June 2021

How to ensure your public sector mobile app is accessible by June 2021

Do you know if your mobile app is accessible? Under new regulations, the public sector has a legal duty to ensure that all mobile applications are accessible by 23 June 2021. These regulations are for public-serving organisations, but every business should be addressing accessibility to provide a good user experience for their customers. After all, users are at the heart of any mobile app strategy.

With the deadline fast approaching, the public sector must act now to ensure compliance as well as to meet the needs of their end-users. Read on to find out how to audit your app for accessibility.

Why are accessibility standards important?

The new regulations cover public bodies, including universities, the NHS, local authorities and central government to make mobile apps accessible to as many people as possible. Complying with accessibility standards will ensure that the design and content are clear enough for all users - whether or not they need to adapt it.

This directive for mobile accessibility follows the introduction of similar guidelines for website accessibility. It builds on your existing obligations to those with a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland), which specify that all UK service providers must consider ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people. The legislation covers existing, new or outsourced apps. 

In the UK, one in five of us has an impairment, long-term illness or disability; and added to this are many more with temporary disabilities. Mobile apps should be accessible for the requirements of all users, including those with impaired vision, deafness or impaired hearing, motor difficulties, cognitive impairment or learning difficulties. 

However, there is still a gap for online resources serving their users effectively. In 2018, 40% of local authority websites’ home pages were not accessible to disabled people (SOCITM). Even after the new guidelines to ensure website accessibility, a recent Scope survey found that 9 out of 10 of England’s largest councils are failing to meet the regulations. Shortfalls included low colour contrasts, screen reader accessibility, confusing layouts and issues with enlarging text. The dramatic shift to digital during the Covid-19 pandemic heightens how essential accessibility is to allow those with disabilities to access vital information and services.

Here at MyOxygen, we work with many health and educational organisations on their apps and understand the importance of getting these standards right first time and putting the needs of the end-users at the centre of app design planning. 

What are mobile accessibility standards?

Mobile accessibility is covered in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) part of the W3C WAI Accessibility Standards, the recognised global standard for web accessibility. The guidelines are divided into four sections - perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. Here are questions to ask:

  1. Are the gestures in apps as easy as possible to carry out?
  2. Have you provided clear instructions for any custom device gestures?
  3. Have you used different contrast ratios for large text? 
  4. Is the keyboard accessible to meet the varied needs of users?
  5. If the orientation of a page is changed, will the screen reader know this?
  6. Is the most useful information on the mobile page before the scroll?
  7. Is it clear if elements in the app are actionable?
  8. Have you reduced the amount of text entry in forms?

It is worth pointing out that web and mobile accessibility are not the same. The situation for mobile apps has added complexity; for example, on apps, people have control over how they manage the settings on different operating systems and devices. For instance, most platforms can switch to large fonts but not all allow it for alt text. Therefore developers must be aware of the numerous ways that users will interact with the app, on different devices and platforms.

How to get accessible

Now to the important matter of ensuring accessibility, and time is running out to meet the deadline of June next year. The Government Digital Service (GDS) will examine a sample of public sector apps and websites each year, and failure to comply could result in Government intervention. However, this is not simply a compliance issue, and lack of accessibility could cause end-user complaints and reputational damage. 

Firstly, we advise that you audit any mobile applications to assess if they should be updated to meet the standards. Then your team is in a position to draw up a timeline and a strategy to solve any issues. Both the audit and resultant action plan may call for support from an external partner, depending on the complexity of the issues and your in-house capacity.

An Accessibility Statement must also be posted and reviewed regularly. This document should detail in plain English whether your website or app is fully, partially or not compliant with the standards, offering alternative solutions to any content that is not accessible and allowing people to feedback on any accessibility issues. It should also include how you assessed your mobile application and any plans you have to solve any remaining accessibility shortfalls.

Plan accessibility from the kickoff

These new guidelines offer an impetus to ensure that apps across public service bodies are accessible and available to all your end-users. It is also an opportunity to build accessibility into your workflow and app briefing documents ongoing.

From our experience, clients often make false assumptions about accessibility. They may think that accessibility has been implicitly covered, when, in fact, it has not been mentioned in any project meetings or briefs. It is far better to factor accessibility at the start of the project, decide what the app requires to provide a good user experience, and how it will meet the guidelines, rather than fix things later.

At the scoping and planning stages of our software development, we deep dive into who your users are and their requirements, which should include accessibility, and only then do we design the mobile app to match. We are also equipped to set up user testing to improve the quality of user experience and the effectiveness of your app. 

Compliance starts with an audit

If you’re looking for advice on mobile accessibility or an audit of an existing app to meet the 23 June 2021 deadline, get in touch with us to discuss how we can help