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A case for mobile accessibility

Posted on behalf of Smitha Sidharthan P., Project Manager, Infosys Validation Solutions

I like to think of my commute to office as a very productive time. So, like my fellow commuters, I spend this glued to my smartphone. I catch up on news, connect with friends and family, do my grocery shopping and check up on my office emails. I also listen to music or podcasts, take the occasional MOOC and sometimes brush up on my Spanish on Duolingo or follow office conversations on Yammer. I even have an app that lets me read a summary of a new non-fiction book every day in under 15 minutes! So I breeze into office feeling quite happy with myself, having ticked off many items from my to-do list.

This is a common scenario that plays out everywhere and with most of us. While the real benefits of such "productivity" are debatable, what is amazing is the revolution that has happened over the last few years making all of this possible. The digital revolution has impacted all areas be it retail, education, entertainment, communication, and employee engagement and has made it possible to access information on the go any time and through different channels.

But has this revolution been truly universal? Does it benefit everyone, irrespective of age and physical ability? Is all this information truly accessible?

The internet and mobile technologies have tremendous potential in impacting the lives of people by providing access to information and resources from anywhere. However, this potential can only be realized if these resources are accessible to all people irrespective of their physical ability.

Consider the smartphone. Increasing adoption of smartphones and proliferation of mobile apps along with improvement in technologies like object recognition has opened up a lot of opportunities for physically impaired people to better navigate the world around them. For example, there are multiple applications available for people with vision impairments that can help in day-to-day activities like identifying objects like currency bills or identifying colors, navigation, seeing better by magnifying objects etc.

Mobile manufacturers are also increasingly providing features to make these devices accessible to people with vision, hearing, motor or cognitive disabilities. Let's take a look at the iOS and Android platforms. For vision impairment, they provide inbuilt screen readers (VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android), digital assistants and voice recognition technology that lets you perform activities through voice, ability to magnify portions of the screen, resize text and support for braille displays. For hearing, we have support for closed captions, mono audio, ability to set up visual instead of audio alerts, etc. People with motor disabilities have the option to customize gestures, support for hardware keyboards and switch access. While the above is not an exhaustive list of assistive features available today, these represent significant improvements in terms of mobile accessibility.

Do these guarantee that all iOS or Android apps are accessible? Not necessarily. They can be accessible only if developed so as to utilize the accessibility features of the operating system. For example, if the developer has not provided a meaningful label for a button, the screen reader will not be able to communicate the purpose of the button to the user. Similarly an image which does not have a text description will not be accessible to a user using a screen reader. Hence it is extremely important to perform an accessibility assessment to identify any issues from the user perspective. Accessibility testers need to understand the needs of differently-abled people as well as accessibility barriers inherent to the mobile platform. They also need to understand any country specific legal requirements related to accessibility that need to be addressed. Automated accessibility scans supplemented by manual user testing can help in ensuring that apps that we build are truly accessible to all users.

Building accessible applications has the added advantage that they tend to be more usable for everyone in general. Hence, focusing on accessibility can improve the overall customer experience and improve the adoption of these applications. 

I for one, find it very useful to turn captions on while listening to a video lecture, especially if the professor's accent is new to me or if I am passing through noisy traffic. Ending phone calls using the Power button is another accessibility feature that was useful when the Touch screen UI was not working properly. And would it not be good to get my shopping done using Voice while I stare at the sky outside! Well, I have added an item to cart but the screen reader says 0 items in cart while I hover over the shopping cart icon. Some other day then, or may be should just try a more accessible app!

Infosys team of experts would be available in booth #59 at STARWEST 2016 to discuss more on accessibility testing and other offerings. More info on our participation is here. Do drop in!

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