How to create understandable content
What is web accessibility and what makes digital content accessible? These questions are being asked, researched, and discussed all over the world. Governments are putting regulations in place. Groups are working to define standards and guidelines. And the content landscape is slowly getting better for people with disabilities.
But there’s still a lot of work to do.
A big part of creating accessible content involves the technical stuff. Coding content for web accessibility and having effective visual design are critical. But imagine if, after all that, your users can’t understand your content? Maybe the sentences or words are too complex, or the ideas are poorly organized. All your careful coding and visual design could go to waste.
In this presentation, I explain how to write content that lowers barriers for people with disabilities, and how the process can benefit everyone.
Who is this presentation for?
This talk is for anyone in a UX/CX or content-related role that wants to:
- Understand the content writing aspects of web accessibility.
- Learn how to create content that everyone can understand.
- Promote better content-writing practices in their organization.
What will you learn?
In this presentation, you’ll learn:
- Why your business should design content to be accessible.
- How poorly written or poorly organized content excludes people with disabilities.
- How to write and organize content to lower barriers for people with disabilities.
Watch the presentation
Access the resources from the presentation:
W3C: Diverse Abilities and Barriers – Learn more about some of the common accessibility barriers caused by inaccessible websites or tools.
The Business Case for Digital Accessibility – Use these resources to help you build a strong business case for adopting web accessibility practices in your organization.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 – Access the W3C’s recommendations for web accessibility.
Planning and Managing Web Accessibility – Get started on integrating accessibility into your organization’s web production process by following this process laid out by W3C.
To follow along with the video or slides, look for timestamps throughout the transcript, indicated with square brackets [ ].
Thank you much for everyone’s time tonight. My name is Farah Hirani and as Kurtis mentioned, I’m a content strategist with Content Strategy, Inc. Today, I’m going to be going over how to write for web accessibility. Really, this talk is about how to create content that’s easy for your users to understand, regardless of their ability, or their context.
I’m going to start with a little bit of background and go over some definitions, so that everyone’s on the same page when it comes to web accessibility. And then I’m going to talk a little bit about why it’s worth making your content accessible and I’ll show you how the way that your content is written might be creating barriers for people with disabilities. Now, I’ll talk through two specific examples and I’ll show you how to transform your content that it could be more easily understood by all your users. And then finally, I’ll leave you with some next steps and we’ll wrap up.
Background on web accessibility
I’ll start with a little bit of background and some definitions. The World Wide Web Consortium, which is known as W3C, is the international community that develops open standards for the web. This includes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which some of you may have heard of, and I’ll be talking a little bit more about those later.
The World Wide Web Consortium says that web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. More specifically, people can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web, and they can contribute to the web. I really like this definition, because it’s specific and it tells us exactly what’s in scope when it comes to making content accessible.
I also really like Mozilla’s definition. They say accessibility is the practice of making your website usable by as many people as possible. You might also think of accessibility as treating everyone the same, and giving them equal opportunities, no matter what their ability or their circumstances. I think this one is great, because it really underscores what I think is one of the most important and compelling aspects of accessibility. Really, at the core of it, it’s about designing your content to be flexible, and that gives users options to access it however they prefer.
Web accessibility addresses diverse abilities and barriers
To truly give all people equal opportunities, which is what we’re trying to do when we design for accessibility, it’s important to be aware of all the different varied experiences that people with disabilities have, including when they access the web.
The W3C has this great resource about the diversity of abilities and barriers that people experience. I’m not going to go too much into detail on this topic. But really, the main thing to note is that when you’re designing for accessibility, there are a wide range of abilities and barriers to consider, and a wide range of abilities and disabilities to consider. Everybody’s unique, and they’re doing things a little bit differently.
This includes people who are using assistive technologies. An assistive technology is a software or hardware that people with disabilities use to improve interaction with the web.
Benefits of web accessibility
So why should you make your content accessible? I’m going to talk about some of the benefits. First, there are probably more people who are living with disabilities than you think there are.
- In Canada, this number is at about 22% of adults who are living with a disability.
- In BC, it’s a little bit closer to 25%.
- In the US, it’s 26%.
We’re looking at about one-in-four to one-in-five people who are living with some kind of disability. You might find this surprising but consider that people with disabilities may have invisible disabilities. You might know some people who live with a disability that you don’t know about, and you wouldn’t know unless they told you about it.
Disabilities can be permanent, they can be temporary, they can be episodic. They can also exist on a spectrum and they can change over time. Some people might not actually see themselves as having a disability, even if they do experience some of the functional limitations associated with a disability.
If you don’t design for web accessibility, you are missing out on this huge market and excluding people who could be benefiting from your content. You’re also missing out on an opportunity to improve the user experience for all your users, because the reality is that everyone will face ability barriers at some point.
So, what’s an ability barrier?
Ability barriers are barriers that come up because of our environment or our context. For example, imagine that you’re outside in the sun, and you’re trying to look at your phone screen. Because it’s sunny, you have a glare from the sun and you can’t see your screen as well as you normally would. That’s an example of an ability barrier. Another example is if you’re on a quiet bus and you want to watch a video, but you don’t want to disrupt people by playing the sound. That’s another example of an ability barrier.
What’s interesting is that the same solutions that help people with disabilities access your content are the same solutions that are going to help your users when they experience these ability barriers. For example, people who are hard of hearing or deaf might look at a written transcript if they want to consume a podcast or video, or they might watch a video with the captions turned on. A person who’s trying to watch a video on a quiet bus is also going to benefit from those same solutions. They might skim the transcript of your video or podcast, or they might watch the video with the captions on.
As another example, imagine someone who has a cognitive or learning disability. They might have difficulty understanding written text, and they might need your content to be clearly structured and organized. If it’s not, they might have trouble understanding it or finding what they’re looking for.
Now in comparison, consider something that’s happening all over the world today. Imagine that you’re a parent at home, and you’re trying to get work done. Your kids are at home, and they’re running around and distracting you. Maybe you don’t have to imagine, maybe that’s been your life for the last year. But if that’s you, then you’re also going to benefit from clearly structured and organized content, in the same way that someone with a learning disability might. That’s because you’re both trying to get information in these little snippets while your attention is split and you’re distracted. The point is that if you’re designing for accessibility, you’re offering flexibility in how people consume your content. Everyone gets equal access, and it improves user experience across the board.
Additional benefits of web accessibility
There are a lot of other benefits, but I’m not going to get into all of them because we don’t have time. But if you’re interested, this business case is another really good resource from the W3C. They do a good job of helping you build a case for accessibility in your organization. If you want more information, check it out.
Web accessibility and legal compliance
I do want to say one quick thing about legal compliance. It’s important to check what the requirements are of an organization like yours, wherever you’re located. There have been an increasing number of lawsuits in the US around accessibility.
Canada, as well as currently four provinces, do have web accessibility requirements in place, so it’s worth looking into what those are. British Columbia is currently in the process of developing requirements, and it’s better to be ready, than to have to scramble at the last minute to fix your website.
Writing for accessibility
A big part of creating accessible content involves more technical aspects. For example, coding your pages for accessibility and having effective visual design. These are critical pieces, because they are going to reduce barriers for people with disabilities who are trying to perceive and interact with your content.
But imagine that you do all of that. You’ve done your coding for accessibility; you’ve created good visual design. But at the end of the day, your users can’t understand your content.
Maybe your content is poorly organized, or it’s too complex, or the language is too complex. And all this work that you’ve done will end up going to waste. You really want to make sure that you’re paying attention to how easily understandable your content is.
So how do we address that? That’s what I’m going to be focusing on for the rest of this talk. I’ll be talking about three content writing practices that might be causing accessibility barriers for your users.
Poor content organization
The first one is poor content organization on the page. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
If we look at this page here on the left a little more closely [9:55, slide 19], we can see that we have a title that isn’t very descriptive. It doesn’t tell us what is going to be on the page, and if you were to look at this page in the context of the actual website, you’d see that it’s not much better. There are no section headings, there’s no sections. It’s all one big block of text. This is an example of a problematic page that has poor on-page content organization.
Here’s another example [10:30, slide 20]. With this one the title is a little bit better, but it’s still not great, because it doesn’t specifically tell us what this page is about. I don’t know if there’s going to be information on this page on different tests that I can take to assess my proficiency. Or maybe it’s about courses I can take to improve my proficiency, I don’t really know from the title. The section headings are also confusing. They both start with the same three words, “Proof of proficiency”, and if you continue to read, you’ll see that they contradict each other. It’s issues like this that I’m going to be showing you how to work through in the next section.
Impact of poor content organization
First, I want to talk about why poorly organized content is problematic for people with disabilities.
The main issue is that it creates barriers and makes it harder for some people to understand your content. For example, some of your users might be using a screen reader. This is a piece of software that reads the content aloud for people who can’t read the text, or maybe they find reading the text difficult. They tend to scan through the headings on the page and will often jump from one heading to another to get an outline of what’s on the page. If you don’t have headings, or if your headings aren’t very good, then you’re forcing these users to read all the text on the page.
The second issue is that users that have cognitive or learning disabilities might have a hard time finding what they’re looking for or understanding the content when they do find it. For example, some people with limited short-term memory rely on descriptive headings to help them predict what’s going to be in each section. Without proper content organization, you are creating barriers for these users.
The second practice that could be problematic for your users is complex writing that has a high readability level.
There is a simple tool called Hemingway Editor that evaluates the readability level of your content. You put your content into this tool and it will give you a readability score, which gauges the lowest education needed to understand your writing. When you’re writing for the web, you want to aim for about a grade six to eight reading level. You put your content into Hemingway Editor and it’s going to add all these metrics as you write.
This evaluation here [13:15, slide 24] shows that the content that I was looking at is at a post-graduate level, and that’s too high for this content.
Let’s move on to some examples of complex and difficult writing. Here on the left [13:30, slide 25] is a page from the Rhodes Wellness College website. It’s targeted at potential students who might be considering one of their programs. What you’re looking at here is just two sentences. They’re both rated by the Hemingway Editor as being very hard to read and they have a post-graduate level readability score. That level of complexity is not warranted for this content, it could easily be written at a grade eight reading level.
This is another example from the Department of Homeland Security in the US [14:05, slide 26]. This is meant to explain the process of how to immigrate to the US, so it’s targeting an international audience. And yet, you can see that the Hemingway Editor tool has rated 50% of the sentences as being hard to read, and it’s also written at a grade 12 readability level. Again, this is too high for this type of content.
I’m going to be working through an example in the next section where I’ll show you how to address these types of issues.
Impact of complex writing
So, what are the impacts of complex writing? Why is it problematic?
It’s going to be harder for everyone to understand. Many people with cognitive or learning disabilities are going to have a really hard time understanding the content and understanding the context. If you’re using things like metaphors, slang, acronyms, or unusual words or phrases, these can all create barriers for understanding. It can be really frustrating for your users. Some won’t be able to overcome these barriers despite their efforts. In those cases, unfortunately, those people are excluded.
The third aspect of your writing practices that could be problematic for your users is link text.
If you look at the first two, organization and writing, these are larger principles that should be applied throughout all your web content. This last one, link text, is a little bit more specific. But it is worth calling out specifically because it’s important for users who are using assistive technologies that this one be done correctly. Let’s take a look at some examples of poor link text.
The first two examples here at the top are from the Hydro One website [15:55, slide 29], which is basically BC Hydro but it’s the Ontario version. The two examples underneath [16:00, slide 29] are from the Uber website. In all these examples, you can see that if you were to take these links out of context, they wouldn’t really make sense. This is important for assistive technology users. Also, the links are generic, so they don’t give you any information on what you’re going to find on the destination page. Finally, at the bottom, you’ve got a couple of links that have different texts, but they serve the same purpose. One of them says “More information” and the other one says, “Learn more” – they’re basically saying the same thing, but they’ve used different phrases. That’s an inconsistency that doesn’t need to be there.
So, what happens when link text is not descriptive, and doesn’t make sense out of context?
Impact of unclear link text
First, people with limited dexterity may want to use speech recognition software to activate a link, by using voice commands. For example, they’ll say “click” and then say the link text. If you have multiple links with the same name on a page, then these users are going to have to carry out a few extra steps to be able to activate specific links.
Users who are using a screen reader are also able to jump from one link to another or pull up a list of the links that are on the page out of context. If the links don’t make sense without the surrounding text, then these users are going to have to tab through the content to get that extra context. Essentially, you’re creating extra work. This is also true for users who are only using a keyboard without a mouse. It’s also worth noting that screen readers will read an entire link. If you have really long link text, that can be frustrating, since users can’t skip over the text.
If we want to reduce barriers for people with disabilities when we’re creating content, we need to make sure that the content is organized, it’s written in plain language, and includes descriptive link text.
How to write for accessibility
So how can you help people with disabilities access your content through the way that you write?
I’m going to walk you through two examples. In the first one, I’ll show you how to create good on-page content organization by using headings, sections, and lists. In the second example, I’m going to show you how to write using user-focused plain language, so that your content is easier to understand. I’ll also walk you through how to create good link text.
Let’s start with on page structure. I’m going to be using this page here [18:45, slide 34]. You’ve seen it a couple of times, it’s from the B.C. Assessment website. I’m going to work through this content and show you how we can create better organization on the page.
To give you a little bit of background, this page is on the B.C. Assessment website. B.C. Assessment is a Crown corporation in British Columbia. Every year, they assess the values of all the properties in the province. If you own a property in BC, you’re going to get a notice from them every year, and it’s going to say, “here’s how much your property is worth as of this year”. For property owners, this can be a big deal. If you get an assessed value for your property that ends up being higher than you expected, then you might be worried because it might mean you have to pay more property taxes. That can be upsetting, because the amount of property tax you pay partially depends on how much your property is worth. And then on the other side, if your assessed value is lower than you expected, then you might be concerned. Maybe you were thinking of selling your property in the next year or two, and now you’re wondering if you’re going to get as much for it as you thought you would. This can be a really emotional situation.
The page that you’re looking at is the page that you would come to if you disagreed with your assessed value, or you were concerned that it wasn’t accurate. This page is supposed to tell you what to do. Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening on this page.
What I’ve done is I read through the page and I pulled out and listed on the right side the steps they’re asking us to take if we disagree with our assessed property value [20:10, slide 35]. You can see that there’s a sequence of steps from one to six, and you’re supposed to follow the steps in this order. But if you map that list to where they discuss each of those steps on the page itself, you can see that it’s this huge mess. For example, if you look at step three – I’ve indicated that with the number three and the pink highlight – you can see how scattered it is all over the page. And the same thing is the case with step two, which I’ve indicated with the number two and orange highlight. You can see that it’s mixed in with step four and step three, and it’s all tangled together. It makes it really hard for the user to figure out what they’re being asked to do and what the order is that they should do it in.
To make everything worse, if you look at the bottom of the page, they’ve got this section where they basically say “by the way, if you fall into this other category, then none of the above actually applies to you, and you need to go do this other thing over here”. Imagine you get through this whole page and you decipher all this content, and then you get to the bottom of the page and realize it doesn’t apply to you. That would be frustrating.
A big part of why this page is confusing is because things are not organized on the page. They’re not organized into section, so it ends up being a scattered mess.
Accessibility guidelines for on-page structure
So how do we fix this? I want to start by looking at some existing guidelines for an idea of what is required at a minimum. The most widely accepted standards for web accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). A lot of you may be familiar with those. They’re developed by the W3C, and they are the most internationally recognized standards for accessibility. We’re going to go ahead and use these as a guide, as I work through some of these examples.
The three that are relevant in this example are the ones that I’ve listed here [22:00, slide 42], for page titles and section headings. The criteria are:
- Page titles: Web pages have titles that describe the topic or purpose.
- Section headings: For section headings, they should be used to organize the content.
- Headings and labels: Section headings should also describe the topic or purpose.
I want to note here that I’ve simplified these guidelines for the purposes of working through these examples. For some of these guidelines there’s a little bit more to them than what I’ve got here. If you want to know more, definitely check them out on the W3C website. But for our purposes, we can use these simpler versions.
So, if we look at the page title [23:20, slide 43], which is “Appeals”, you could argue that it meets the standard since appeals is one of the topics that’s discussed on the page. But really, filing an appeal is just one of the steps that I had outlined. So it’s actually not the most descriptive title for this page.
Tips for creating effective page titles
Here are some tips for creating effective page titles.
- The page title should accurately reflect the topic of your page.
- Unique and relevant information should be at the beginning of the title.
- The title itself should be unique compared to all the other pages on the website.
- Page titles should be as short as possible. You want to aim for a page title that is about 60 to 70 characters, because search engines will usually cut off the rest in the search engine results.
- Task-based pages should start with an action verb ending in “-ing”.
- Titles should incorporate search engine optimization keywords where it makes sense. But don’t force them at the expense of the user’s needs or the users understanding of the content.
So, I went ahead and I came up with a new title for this page,”Disagreeing with your assessed property value” [24:30, slide 45]. This title meets most of the criteria except for the SEO keywords criteria. This is because normally you would rely on an SEO strategy and research to know what keywords you’re targeting. We don’t have access to that here, I haven’t included it. But normally, I would look at the keywords I’m trying to rank for and see if there’s an opportunity to work them into the title without obscuring the needs of the user.
Let’s move on to section headings. Since they don’t have any section headings on this page to begin with, they clearly don’t meet this standard [25:10, slide 46] .
Tips for creating effective headings
Let’s look at some tips on how to create effective section headings.
- The content should be broken out to have one topic per heading or subheading, and one idea per paragraph.
- Section heading should be descriptive, so that it’s clear what the user is going to find in the content underneath it.
- The most important words should be placed first in the heading.
- Headings should be concise and to the point. Prioritize clarity over cleverness.
- Each heading on the page should be unique and not generic. You never want to use multiples of the same heading more than once on the page.
- Headings should be tagged H1 to H6 and shouldn’t skip levels. Only use one H1 tag because that’s going to be your page title and there should only be one.
- Headings on the page should be consistent and parallel in structure.
I went ahead and I created section headings for the page that I’ve been working through [26:00, slide 48]. You can see that each of these H2 headings represents one of those sequenced steps that the page had recommended. I’ve also included any deadlines in the heading itself. That way, users who are quickly scanning the page, either visually or using an assistive technology, don’t miss anything important. You can also see that, as I mentioned, these H2 headings have parallel structure. They all start with the phrase “Step”, and then the number. That happens to be the case for these headings because it is a series of steps. That’s followed by a verb and you can see that they’re all similar in structure. It starts with the same verb tense, which is present tense. You’ve got “review”, “contact”, “file”, “prepare”, “file”; that’s parallel structure.
Now we’ll talk a about something that isn’t required by the guidelines, and that’s bullet points. Bullet points are not explicitly required by the WCAG, but they are recommended. They improve the user experience because they make content much easier to scan. Let’s look at some tips for using bullet lists.
Tips for using bullet points
Bullet lists are great replacements for in-line lists of items because they’re a lot easier to scan.
- Use bullet points for lists of related terms, when the sequence of those terms is not important.
- Use a numbered or an ordered list to show steps in a process or the number of parts in a whole.
- Use parallel structure for all list items. This means that you start each bullet with the same part of speech, that it doesn’t sound awkward or disjointed.
- Use an ordered list with a different numbering system for each level if you have a list with multiple levels in it. This is important for users using assistive technologies, because it allows them to see the structure of the list.
- Structure longer lists into smaller lists that are separated with headings.
I’ve turned one of the paragraphs on the page into a list to show you how visually different they can look [28:40, slide 51]. If you look at the original version on the top, you can see that you need to skim the paragraph to figure out what’s going on and to see what’s in the content. Whereas in the bottom, you can look at the bullet list. It’s easy to quickly scan through the information and quickly see if there’s anything useful for you.
After rewriting the whole page, you can see the difference between the right and the left side, the right side being the one that I rewrote [29:15, slide 52]. Even though the right side looks longer, it’s a lot easier for a user to quickly scan it and find what they need, and the steps are clearly separated. They’re also in sequence, so it’s easy to figure out what you need to do next. The rewritten version would be a lot easier for people who are using a keyboard or screen reader. It’s also going to be easier for people who have cognitive or learning disabilities, or a memory impairment. This is because they have a more visual cues and they also have descriptive headings that help them. It lays out content a lot more clearly.
Write in a way that’s easy to understand
Let’s move on to the second example. This is where I’m going to show you how to improve the writing itself and make it easier to understand. I’ll use this page from the McGill University website as an example [30:20, slide 54].
This is a page for graduate and postdoc students at McGill University. As you can see, it provides career and professional development resources. It’s a great example to use, because the structure of the page is already well done. You’ve got the title, section headings, and if you were to expand these elements, you would see that they even have bullet lists. So now, we can forget about structure and focus on the writing.
So how easy is it to understand? Let’s look at this first section that I’ve indicated [31:00, slide 56], and I’ll work through that.
If we look at these headings, and scan through the headings alone, we can see “Campus Life & Engagement”, “What they do”, and “Contact them”. From looking at these headings, none of it really tells us what this section is about. As a user, I don’t know what I’m getting from “Campus Life and Engagement”. So now I have to read the text that’s right underneath the heading. It says, “Campus Life & Engagement offer programs centered on the theme of leadership development”. Now I know that the topic is leadership development, but I would never have been able to guess that from the heading, “Campus Life & Engagement”. I also don’t have any information on what the programs that it references are about. I might try to expand these elements [32:00, slide 60], but if I did that, I would read the text and see that there isn’t much information [32:10, slide 61]. Even after reading the content, there’s still a lot that’s unclear.
For example, this first bullet under “What they do” says “Offer workshops and a semi-annual conference as part of an Emerging Leaders Program”. From reading this bullet, I still don’t know what the workshops or the conference are about. I’m left wondering what I’m going to get out of them, and I don’t know what’s going to be required of me. I also don’t know what the Emerging Leaders Program is. This is likely internal jargon that doesn’t mean anything to most users.
Also, the readability level for this content is at a grade 11 level, which is too high. You could say that this page is for graduate and postdoc students, so maybe they can handle it. But what I would say is the content itself does not warrant for the level to be this high. This information could very clearly be communicated at a grade six to eight reading level. That would make it easier for everyone to read.
The other thing I wanted to say is, I’ve underlined these phrases here [33:15, slide 64] because I consider these phrases to be really organization centric. Phrases like “Campus Life & Engagement offer”, and “What they do” put the university or the department at the center of the content. They’re saying, “here’s what we do”, “here’s what we offer”, “here’s what we’re all about”. Framing things in this way makes it hard for users to figure out exactly what they’re going to get out of the offering. In other words, it’s hard for them to know how they’re going to benefit.
There is a lot work required to frame things around your user and their needs. You need to understand who they are, what they care about, their pain points, and their challenges. Then, you need to take all of that and use it to frame your content so that it’s clear to your users how your offering is going to meet their needs. What I really want to stress here is that at the end of the day, that work needs to get done. Someone is going to have to do that work. If you don’t take on the burden of creating user-focus content, then you’re putting the onus on your users. They’re the ones who have to connect all these dots, and that’s not a great user experience.
Accessibility guidelines for clear, user-focused writing
So how do we fix these issues? First, let’s look at our guidelines to get a sense of where we need to be at a minimum [35:10, slide 65].
- Page titles: Web pages have titles that describe the topic or purpose.
- Headings and labels: Headings and labels describe the topic or purpose.
- Link purpose: Purpose of the link is clear from the link text alone.
We’ve already seen the first two, but we haven’t seen the third guideline yet. Link purpose requires that the purpose of the link be clear from the link text alone. We also have three additional guidelines [35:20, slide 66]. These ones focus more on using plain language.
- Unusual words: Define words and phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, including idioms and jargon.
- Abbreviations: Define abbreviations.
- Reading level: Text should require reading ability at or below grade 8, or have supplemental content.
Page titles, headings, and labels
Let’s look at our example [35:35, slide 67]. I would say the page title “Career & Professional Development” is pretty good. The only change I might make is to add “resources” to the end, it’s “Career & Professional Development Resources”. But that gets a little long. I would need to look at the CMS requirements and constraints and consider whether it fits with the rest of the site. The section headings need more work. Here, I’ve revised them to be a little bit more descriptive [36:15, slide 68]. You can see that “Campus Life & Engagement” becomes “Develop leadership and facilitation skills”; “What they do” becomes “What’s available to you”; and “Contact them” becomes “Get in touch to learn more”.
The link text doesn’t really make sense if you read it out of context [36:30, slide 71]. You’ve got “workshop”, “semi-annual conference”, and “Leading effective discussions: Facilitation skills for graduate students”. These aren’t the best link texts. Let’s see how we can make them better.
Tips for descriptive link text
We’ve got some tips here for creating descriptive link text.
- Don’t overuse links. Too many of them can be distracting.
- Create descriptive, unique link text. It should be clear what the user is going to find on the destination page if they click that link.
- Create concise link text. The text should be short because screen readers will read the entire link.
- Make link text consistent. All your link text should follow the same structure.
- Don’t use URLs themselves as part of the link text, and don’t use “link to” or “link” in your text. Assistive technologies will already pick up on that and announce it.
I’ve rewritten the link text for the section that we’ve been working through [37:40, slide 74]. You can see that:
- “Workshops” becomes “Build leadership skills through a suite of 90-minute workshops”
- “Semi-annual conference” becomes “Free Emerging Leaders mini conference”
- “Leading effective discussions: facilitation skills for graduate students” becomes “Learn facilitation skills through a one-day workshop”
“Send an email” becomes the written-out version of the email address, because this is going to offer more flexibility and more predictability for your users.
Now let’s look at these last three standards.
There aren’t really any unusual words in this section [38:20, slide 79]. There is one abbreviation, but you can see that they’ve handled it correctly. They’ve provided the whole longer version first, and then they’ve indicated the abbreviated version in brackets for their first use. That’s exactly what they should be doing. But we do need to work on the reading level, which is too high.
Tips for user-focused plain language
Here are some tips for creating user-focused plain language content.
- Use shorter words and simpler sentences.
- Aim for a grade six to eight reading level.
- Use an active voice instead of passive voice. For example, instead of saying “the squirrel was chased by the dog”, this is passive, you would say “the dog chased the squirrel”.
- Take a user-focused approach. This means you want to speak directly to your audience with words like “you” and “your”, and you also want to frame it around their needs, like I had talked about earlier.
- Put the most important information first. Either at the top of the page, at the front of the sentence, or at the beginning of your paragraph. You never want to assume that your users are going to read every word, because research has shown that they don’t do that.
So, I’ve gone ahead and rewritten this first section so we can compare them [39:55, slide 83]. The first sentence in this section originally read: “Campus Life & Engagement offer programs centered on the theme of leadership development.” Now it reads: “You’ll develop strong leadership skills and network with like-minded students.” If the Campus Life & Engagement department felt very strongly that their name should stay somewhere on the page, I would add it as a second sentence, so that it minimally interferes with user needs. If you need to include branding, there is a way to make it a little less intrusive and stay out of the way of the user, but I would recommend leaving it out.
Next, if we look at this first bullet under “What they do” it originally reads: “Offer workshops and a semi-annual conference as part of an Emerging Leaders Program”. I’ve split this up into two different bullets in the rewritten version. The first one is “Build leadership skills through a suite of 90-minute workshops on a variety of topics like ethics, communication, and conflict resolution”. The second one is: “Explore leadership and meet other like-minded students by attending the free Emerging Leaders mini-conference”. This is a far more descriptive way of presenting the information. It gives you a sense of the topics included in the workshop and what you’re going to get out of the conference. There’s a much better chance that a user who’s reading this will be able to make a decision about whether it’s relevant for them and whether they want to learn more.
Now you have an idea of how to improve content organization on the page and write in a way that’s going to be easier to understand, especially for people who have disabilities. Next, I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about the next steps, and then I’ll wrap things up.
So where can you go from here? It depends on where your organization is at with web accessibility. The W3C has some great resources on how to move forward with web accessibility in your organization. If you’re just starting out, you can look at these resources. They do a really good job of taking you through the different stages of initiating, planning, implementing, and sustaining web accessibility practices in your organization.
On the other hand, if you need to urgently address accessibility in an ongoing web project, they’ve also developed this web accessibility first aid resource. You can access that through the same link. That’s where I would recommend starting.
Recapping the presentation
During this presentation, I’ve talked about how designing for web accessibility, at its core, is about designing content that’s flexible. Flexibility allows users to decide how they want to access web content, and be able to access it, regardless of their preference, ability, environment, or situation. You’ve also seen that, by designing for accessibility, you’re making access possible for those one-in-four to one-in-five people who are living with disabilities. In the process, you’re also planning for the ability barriers that arise for everyone in certain situations and environments. This improves the user experience for all your users.
I hope that through the examples that I’ve worked through, you have an idea of how transformative it can be when you:
- Organize content on the page,
- Write in a way that’s easy for your users to understand and act on, and
- Use effective and descriptive link text.
Unfortunately, for people with disabilities, poorly done content is something they encounter far too often. When you add up all the inaccessible content that exist out on the web, you start to understand how frustrating an experience it must be. In the best case, those that can go through pages like these, untangle them, and understand what’s going on, they’re going to have a terrible experience. In the worst-case scenario, there are going to be people who can’t make sense of the content and don’t get to participate. They don’t benefit from the content and they get left out. That does not create equal opportunities for everyone.
I really like this quote by Steve Krug. He says: “The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives by doing our jobs a little bit better?”. I think he makes a really good point. It really doesn’t take much more than that.
I want to thank all of you for listening and I hope that somewhere in this talk, you found some opportunity, even if it’s tiny, to do your jobs a little bit better. If you want more information about creating user-focused content, you can check out the articles on our website or sign up for our newsletter.