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25 June 2012

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This paper is a contribution to the Mobile Accessibility Online Symposium. It was not developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and does not necessarily represent the consensus view of W3C staff, participants, or members.

Inclusive Mobile Experience: Beyond the Guidelines and Standards

1. Problem Description

There are no universally accepted accessibility standards for mobile web accessibility. The technology is developing at a blistering pace, constantly changing. We are the ones who stay the same. Human beings, of whatever capabilities, are who we are designing the experience for, not the device, not the operating system and not to determine if apps are better than mobile websites. An approach that seeks only to create a new set of standards, a mobile version of WCAG, runs the risk of being out of date before it is even published, let alone universally accepted by the mobile design and development community.

2. Background

What standards apply to mobile? A few years ago the Reciprocal Interoperability of Accessible and Mobile Webs (RIAM) research project examined that question. They attempted to map the Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) to WCAG 2.0. The MWBP are concerned with usable mobile experiences, and the research project assessed whether these could be mapped to WCAG 2 to devise a possible mobile accessibility standard. While this was an attractive idea, there are limitations to this approach - WCAG 2.0 was developed for browsers, has almost no mobile-style gestural interactions and additionally, this mapping was done in July 2008 and last updated in June 2009.

However, since June 2009:

  • iPhone 3Gs with VoiceOver, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s with Siri were all released. iPhone 3, available at the time of RIAM standards work, didn't have VoiceOver as part of its operating system or Siri, a kind of artificial intelligence in a mobile devi
  • Android has released several versions of its OS including Donut, Éclair, FroYo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb and Ice cream Sandwich. In the last 6 months of 2011, more than 30 devices were released by various manufacturers on different versions of Android OS
  • Windows phone 7 and 7.5 Mango released…Windows Phone 8 code-named Apollo to come mid 2012
  • In June 2009, one of the most innovative mobile devices didn't exist at all. We had no tablets. Revolutionary devices released since June 2009 include iPad 1, iPad 2 and iPad HD as well as Galaxy tab and more

We are drowning in mobile devices and operating systems, technology that is literally changing on a weekly basis yet with nothing substantial in guidelines to enable us to determine if the experiences we are designing are accessible, inclusive or even usable for people with disabilities. None of the existing guidelines, mapped or not, cover these new, gesture-based interactions in any meaningful way and new interactions evolve with every mobile application or web site. The question is, is it possible to have a consistent, relevant and meaningful set of guidelines that are always up to date and universally accepted, to cover accessible mobile experiences?

3. Strategy

We must stay focussed on accessibility and inclusion. If we try to design for all these different devices and operating systems then we just end up designing for mobile diversity, not for accessibility. We must design for human capabilities. The development of the mobile accessible experience is more often than not being driven by the device manufacturers rather than people with accessibility needs. It's also focussing too intensively on the visually impaired experience. It's time to bring the focus back to all users with accessibility requirements to understand what an inclusive mobile experience means for them. This will allow their requirements to drive the formation of guidelines and standards rather than outdated standards mapping exercises completed in isolation, re-hashing of standards that are applicable to some other form of technology or interaction altogether, or device manufacturers devising whatever they think the experience should be. A user-centred approach is the core principle of this research piece, including one-on-one interviews, contextual inquiry to understand how users interact with their devices in the real world, and usability testing of core types of mobile tasks. These tasks can include fact-finding, shopping, information retrieval and comparing products as were used in the Nielsen Norman web accessibility testing study completed in 2001. Additional mobile context tasks would be included such as geo-located activities, use of mobile device capabilities such as the camera and overall gestural interactions. As part of my inclusive design research at City University I gathered requirements and tested with a visually impaired participant to ensure the design was accessible. This included one on one interviews and specifically creating wireframe prototypes in HTML to be tested with a screenreader. I've also used similar techniques in my current role at a major Australian bank as the user experience and accessibility specialist. Using this proven inclusive approach we can understand the mobile usage context and intent for each of the disability groups with the main focus being on touch and gesture-based interfaces.

4. Major Difficulties

  • Participant recruitment for user interviews and testing with sufficient skills in using gesture-based mobile devices
  • Tight timeframe for data gathering and synthesis
  • Participants already have pre-conceptions of their mobile experience and context from using their existing mobile device capabilities.

5. Outcomes

The key outcome from this research must be the detailing of requirements from users with actual accessibility needs, including specifying what their inclusive mobile experience needs to encompass. This can be used as the basis for creating standards and guiding device manufacturers, user experience professionals and software developers. Given the conclusions will be concerned with human capability and the mobile context, it should be possible to try and remain as technology agnostic as possible, however this can be a potential pitfall as some users may have preconceived ideas from their existing device functionality. Regardless, eliciting and publishing research derived, real user needs to be available to all as the basis for future design and development decisions can only further a stronger inclusive and accessible mobile experience.

6. Open Research Avenues

Utilising "user stories" a repeatable engagement method can be created for involving users to sense check new mobile advancements as to how well they provide an inclusive experience. User stories are natural language statements describing a requirement from the user perspective structured in the following fashion: As a "user role" I can "do this task" so that "I get this benefit". Requirements will be articulated as "user stories" and one user story can potentially cross over several standards. Once a fully representative set of user story requirements has been established, a gap analysis can be performed against existing standards to see which requirements are covered and which requirements will need a new standard to be created. For example, the need for images to have appropriately labelled ALT tags is relevant to mobile standards and is already covered in WCAG 2. Each new "user story" discovered through repeatable research engagements can be analysed against the set of guidelines and standards developed for mobile and touch to see whether it is covered either technically or by standards-based best practice. This will allow for a user centred "living" set of standards to evolve.


  1. Proceedings: F.Chun Yat Li, D.Dearman, K.Truong (2010) Leveraging Proprioception to Make Mobile Phones More Accessible to Users with Visual Impairments ASSETS '10: Proceedings of the 12th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers and accessibility (ACM SIGACCESS 2010), 2485-2492. DOI: 10.1145/1878803.1878837
  2. Proceedings: J.Kim, J.Ricaurte (2011) TapBeats: accessible and mobile casual gaming ASSETS '11: The proceedings of the 13th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers and accessibility (ACM SIGACCESS 2011) DOI: 10.1145/2049536.2049609
  3. Newsletter: S.Kane (2009) Context-enhanced interaction techniques for more accessible mobile phones SIGACCESS Accessibility and Computing, Issue 93 (SIGACCESS Newsletter 2009) DOI: 10.1145/1531930.1531936
  4. Website: Editor: Y.Yesilada (University of Manchester)http://wel.cs.manchester.ac.uk/research/riam
  5. Report: J. Nielsen, K, Pernice (2001) Nielsen Norman Group Report. Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Users With Disabilities http://www.nngroup.com/reports/accessibility