In the last article, we covered what actions over the last 10,000 years made communication the central pillar of modern society. From the first division created by specialisation, to the eventual opening and exposing of information to all ranks of society.
In this final article, we explore how modern accessibility has changed, limitations it holds and where we should be looking for the future of accessible content.
WCAG promotes accessibility. However, a more accurate description of what is happening is equal access. It means that content, regardless of its quality, is equally available to everyone. It does this by leading developers away from creating barriers to access, whether they be accidental or intentional. If a screen reader cannot comprehend a site’s code, then there is a barrier. If an image is used to communicate information and there has not been any effort to provide that same content in another form, then there is a barrier. If a video is used and there are no subtitles, there is a barrier. Ripping down these walls helps create a foundation that allows everyone to access all the same content.
But, and this is a significant ‘but’, it mostly focuses on the access perspective at the moment. It does not provide significant guidance on how to construct content. It does not lead the way when considering the interpretation of content. Nor does it talk to the way content should be arranged to help deliver messages.
It is easy to see why this is the case. WCAG as a system relies on the quantitative measure; it wants to be able to give scores for each category and requirement that it sets. If an image has ALT text, it can be scored as meeting that requirement. If it technically uses headers appropriately, even if it is not pertinent to the content, it can be marked as passing.
Qualitative measures, on the other hand, do not lend themselves all that well to grading sites. They often explore the different shades of grey, and as such fails and passes are far more difficult to objectively grant. The lack of right and wrong, good or bad, means that the scope of what can be considered is far broader than what is currently explored. It is this broader scope, the one which encompasses the middle ground, that must be considered for the future of accessibility.
We must now move beyond simple equal access, and now look towards equal understanding, equal comprehension and truly accessible content.
How should accessibility change in the future?
The scope of the current approach to accessibility centres around a certain range of disabilities; vision, motor control, and audio issues. While this movement has ensured that equal access to the digital content which has been spreading out across the world, there are elements which deserve more attention.
Our focus needs to shift a little, we need to start moving towards addressing the accessibility of the information contained within content itself. This is not just to support people with cognitive disabilities, there is a much larger audience than that. It includes those with learning difficulties, such as Dyslexia or ADHD, to people with differing levels of education, to those who are second language speakers or even those with other more common reading difficulties. It includes the greater audience of everyone.
We have already seen technologies that were made for accessibility purposes shift into mainstream. It is time for the mainstream to consider what they can do to help everyone. This is where content becomes important.
As I mentioned earlier, WCAG accessible technologies and other supporting tools are all about making content more available. The lack of oversight of the content itself means that the regardless of how easy it is to get to, people might struggle to comprehend it.
At a very high level, there is a lot of information that people want access to that is critical to making informed and wise decisions. This is true for financial information almost more than anywhere else. It is an area that everyone will have to interact with, and often understanding the different shades of grey from one agreement to the next is worse than trying to comprehend how to build an IKEA shelf. For example, when completing something like tax (which everyone has to do) it is easier to access the information than to comprehend it, even if you are already well versed in the topic.
The question then is "How can we broaden WCAG to be more inclusive of the interpretation of content in addition to the access of that content?"
Alternative content forms
We are already well versed through WCAG to be producing alt text for elements that might not be accessible to certain audiences. This includes alt text on images and captions of videos. However, for some, it is undeniable that the words alone can be just incomprehensible.
While we use alt text for images, it is also possible to consider alternate forms for textual information. For example, when looking at finances, including a calculator is a great alternative way of demonstrating written content. Together they let people not only read about the relevant rules or features, but interact with them.
Images can also be extremely valuable ways to communicate messages which might be more complicated. I know that when I have trouble explaining something, turning to a whiteboard has never been a bad idea. Many tutorial or self-help sources have also changed their tact to include video, audio or graphical instructions in addition to using plain text to communicate their messages. Sometimes it is as simple as turning data into graphs or tables
Infographics deserve a special mention in this regard. They are all about presenting information that was mentioned in a piece of text, in a manner and context that allows people to grasp the true meaning of the content. It communicates the meaning in a way that allows for improved audience comprehension.
Sometimes it will not be possible to present messages across multiple mediums, in these cases there are ways of producing the content itself which can help with the interpretation. Simply reducing the complexity of the message that you wish to communicate is extremely valuable. Rather than putting everything down at the same time, inundating people with far too much information at once, split it up and spread it out. Take what was one paragraph or header and make it two.
Other tools such as BeeLine or ReadSpeaker also provide the means for people who may otherwise have trouble comprehending what is presented in pure text format. BeeLine helps readers ensure that they do not get lost. It helps guide people through a text. As ReadSpeaker helps regular users access the same information, it does so in a manner that might be easier to comprehend (spoken word), this is particularly valuable for those using second languages to navigate the web.
Acronyms and jargon
Overused and poorly understood; management speak and jargon often leave people scratching their heads wondering what fuzzy is going on. This is especially dangerous on the internet as in-speak does not translate well to those outside an organisation.
The same is true for acronyms, often these are centred around individual organisations. Here in Canberra this means that too many people can speak in acronyms, it is almost our native tongue thanks to the government influence.
However, leave Canberra and it becomes a different experience all together. Using this same language in another city will render parts of what you say incomprehensible. Yes, it may be shorter, but does it help communicate the message or does it just turn simple sentences into enigmas?
So, ideally, we should avoid jargon and acronyms wherever possible. There will be times where the use of acronyms helps to communicate the message, but where less-common acronyms are being used, careful consideration should be given to whether their use will make accessing the message easier.
Where we cannot remove these, there are ways for us to accommodate their presence in our design. Looking at the Department of Communications and the Arts Annual Report (something which contains plenty of technical terminology), we have presented on-hover alt text. We define what each acronym means and where we use technical terms, we provide a definition. By providing this additional information at the user’s fingertips, the barrier to comprehension is reduced.
While it may be more difficult to accommodate full definitions within a short piece of alt text, something should still be included. These could be asides or they could be links to more detailed descriptions. The ABC News website does this extremely well; when using technical terms, they often include an informative insert, further explaining to the reader the meaning of the word or phrase.
Talk to the message
One of the more seemingly counterintuitive pieces of advice I will talk to in this piece surrounds the construction of the content itself. It is extremely common to be told to "write to the audience", however when it comes to writing for the web, you should be totally inclusive. That is to say that one should write content that encompasses everyone, not just the audience that you expect to address.
The same is true when considering more standard accessibility. When building a website you do not even consider excluding visually impaired people, even if you do not consider them being part of your intended audience. The same should be true of the content that you write.
Do not write to the audience. Write to the message constructed for everyone.
This may seem like a fairly daunting task, but when considered from the beginning of the process becomes much simpler. Things that you should think about include:
- Avoid in-speak and jargon
- Use simpler sentences and paragraphs
- use active voice
- Keep them to no more than 20-25 words
- No more than about 5 sentences to a paragraph
- Limit number of key points per paragraph
- Use bullets and lists
- Use infographics to highlight specific points
- Use white space to divide content
- Use clear headers
Page and content design
Words alone will not always be able to deliver messages in the clearest fashion. A combination of extra supporting content, definitions, and alternative media all can combine to create a much stronger message. However, failing to consider the design of the interface, and how the user navigates the content, means that the information may become more difficult to comprehend than it would otherwise need to be.
Including indexes, headers (appropriately nested) and keeping the message clean and consistent all help to directing the reader through the content. Just like a sitemap helps people comprehend the structure of your site (not that these are so common or valuable any more), an index does the same for the content across a page.
Indexes are most certainly ‘sometimes’ features though. If a page contains too much information they often behave as a damage mitigation tool. Reducing the number of messages per page, and distributing the same information across multiple pages, is sometimes a much better way to focus the message you wish to communicate.
Individually these different elements may not seem like much. However, together they create an environment where the container is not the only method to increase accessibility. In essence, the content is the most important thing on any website. Regardless of technical accessibility, if the content is not good, interesting and, most importantly, comprehensible, a website should be considered as inaccessible. It is time to broaden our understanding and behaviour surrounding web accessibility. We need to prepare our content, not just the container, for everyone.