If you haven’t heard the term "inclusive design" yet, you will soon. It’s a simple idea: By designing to accommodate people with disabilities, we can make products that are better for everyone. Just look at the typewriter, originally invented to help a blind person write letters. The idea is old, but the movement is picking up speed as companies such as Microsoft are using it at the core of their design philosophy.
Now, in its own nod to the trend, Google has released an Android app called the Accessibility Scanner. With the touch of a button, it allows you to analyze any screen or app on your phone for accessibility and inclusivity—in other words, how well it will work for people with sight or fine motor control issues.
We decided to run some of the Google Play store’s most popular apps through the Accessibility Scanner grinder. And surprise! Social networks, notorious for attempting to attract younger users, didn’t do so well. But while the app itself is very well designed, it also illustrates how complex ideas of accessibility and design can be in practice.
First up? Kik. In this seemingly bare-bones messaging app, literally every element on the chat screen was flagged for being too small, or not contrast-y enough. Instagram was another big problem UI: Pretty much every element is flagged for size, except the photos themselves. Then there was Snapchat. With just five suggestions, it doesn't seem like an egregious offender—until you realize that almost every one of the app’s Spartan elements has been flagged. The app recommended that buttons be enlarged, and pointed out that screen readers may not be able to identify parts of the screen for the visually impaired.
Of course, Snapchat purposefully isn’t designed for accessibility. As founder Evan Spiegel once told the Daily Mail's Jon Steinberg after he complained that the interface wasn't intuitive enough: "You’re not really the target."
Facebook was also particularly painful. A snapshot at the very top of my Facebook feed included 22 suggested improvements. They ran the entire gamut. Contrast. Size. And some item descriptions were duplicated, making navigation via automated speakable text harder. Notably, elements such as the untapped Like button were determined to be too low in contrast, as they were rendered in gray rather than black. It's an example of how information hierarchy—and the fact that the user is not supposed to be drawn to a gray Like button at the expense of the eye-catching black text of a news post—is getting flagged by Google for its limitations in accessibility.
Not every popular app had accessibility problems, though. Netflix’s home screen full of movies and shows was the only thing we tested with zero improvements offered. The UI seems to benefit from its naturally high-contrast branding, along with large images. Spotify was another star of accessibility. Its main page needed no adjustments, while its internal album pages had very few size-based and labeling complaints. Again, we see how a high-contrast interface doesn't just look good—it's accessible for a larger number of users.
Google doesn’t let you run a scan on the Accessibility Scanner app itself—we tried—but you can scan its app icon from the home screen. Using a Samsung Galaxy S6, with a stock blue backdrop, the Accessibility Scanner called out its own app icon for being too low-contrast.
That ironic contradiction shows just how complicated accessibility is to interface design—even when you’re being thoughtful. It’s obvious that most "mistakes" spotted by the system are the result of cramming buttons and information onto a screen that's tiny by nature. So is the UI the problem, or is it a broader issue of UX? Smartphones themselves might not be all that accessible, simply because of their size.
The app raises other questions. As one commenter in the Google Play store points out, Google’s material design approves of both gray text and the three-dot contextual menu buttons that the Accessibility Scanner flags as problematic. Gray text in particular was another problem in almost every app I tested with the scanner. Yet gray text is obviously being deployed by designers for a very specific reason—to reduce a user's focus on a particular piece of information.
Snapchat, for instance, grays out a Snapchat Story until it’s fully cached and ready to watch. Facebook grays out the Like and Share buttons (unless you tap on them) because you've seen them each thousands of times. These elements are, essentially, less accessible by design. So do they need to be rethought? Or are they, in actuality, just right?
And so as the entire idea of inclusive design—designing for everyone by designing for disabilities first—continues to catch hold, it’s worth watching whether companies like Google will drink their own Kool-Aid, and whether or not material design standards will change to accommodate all users. Even if it means an end to the gray areas.
All Images: via Google