Accessibility is more than code and colours
As organisations we rely on our digital content to spread our messages far and wide. And for it to serve its purpose it must be able to be accessed, and used. But what does this really mean?
In this podcast episode, hear from Clare Reucroft, Content Designer at Content Design London. Clare will share what lies beyond accessible code and colours. And explore how language makes a difference too. Listen and gain practical tips to help you create content that can be accessed, understood and used by everyone.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of our Texthelp Talks podcast! If you'd like to know more about Clare, you can visit contentdesignlondon.com.
As mentioned at the end of the podcast, our new product ReachDeck is already helping many organizations to keep their content simple, short and clear. So you can check that out at text.help/accessible-language.
Donna Thomson (00.15):
Hello everyone and welcome to the latest episode of Texthelp Talks Podcast, where we chat to experts and pioneers from the education arena and the workplace. Our goal is to bring you tried and tested strategies and best practices to make your journey towards building a more accessible and inclusive organization easier.
Donna Thomson (00.34):
If you haven't done so already, you can subscribe to our podcast through your podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. You can search for Texthelp Talks and you should find us. So today you're hearing from me, Donna Thomson, marketing manager at Texthelp and I'm joined by Clare Reucroft, content designer at Content Design London. Clare has a background in linguistics and experience in design practices and has a keen interest in all things content, usability, accessibility and language. She cares deeply about accessibility and inclusive design and how the words we use impact experience.
Donna Thomson (01.11):
So today we'll be talking about the role of content when it comes to digital accessibility and we'll be sharing practical advice to help you to become more inclusive with your content. So first up, Clare, hi. It's great to have you on the podcast today.
Clare Reucroft (01.25):
Hi Donna. Thank you so much for that lovely introduction. It's a pleasure to be here.
Donna Thomson (01.30):
Great. Okay. Well I think the last time we worked together actually was on a webinar with AbilityNet back in September last year if you can remember that far back.
Clare Reucroft (01.38):
Gosh, yeah. That was such a long time ago now. It's summer again. I'm delighted for summer. So yes.
Donna Thomson (01.44):
Me too. I think ever since the pandemic it's just become a little bit blurry when you think back.
Clare Reucroft (01.51):
Time doesn't really exist anymore.
Donna Thomson (01.53):
Exactly, but the sunshine makes everything better now doesn't it?
Clare Reucroft (01.56):
Yes, absolutely. It's very tantalizing looking out my window just now.
Donna Thomson (02.02):
Just want to be out there instead of inside, isn't that right?
Clare Reucroft (02.04):
Donna Thomson (02.05):
Okay. Well, listen, let's talk about accessibility and usability. I guess a good place to start is by talking through the differences between these terms. Can you maybe tell us what we actually mean by accessibility and usability?
Clare Reucroft (02.18):
Yeah, of course. As I understand it and as web accessibility is understood, it's about universality and making something that can be used by as many people as possible. I'd say it's also a legal requirement, particularly in the UK. I can't speak for the rest of the world and their particular laws but certainly within the UK it's a legal requirement and it is absolutely everyone's responsibility. So really everyone has a duty to make a real difference within their space.
Clare Reucroft (02.58):
But then also you have usability. So usability is a measure of how well a specific user within a specific situation or context can use a product or service to achieve a goal effectively, efficiently and satisfactorily. Now, if we think about that definition of usability and then the definition that I just gave you of accessibility and I don't know about you guys, but I'm not really seeing that much difference. If you think that your site is accessible or if you think your site is usable, then it must by definition be accessible. If you have one, then you must have the other because by definition, if someone with an access need cannot use your website then it's not usable. That's how I would define the two. They are inextricably linked.
Donna Thomson (04.10):
Yeah. They go hand in hand, don't they?
Clare Reucroft (04.10):
Donna Thomson (04.10):
You mentioned legislation there and I think there are a lot of countries now making accessibility, saving accessibility and all around the world. So the UK for sure. North America, for sure. So we'll probably see that as the time goes on we'll be more and more-
Clare Reucroft (04.23):
It's like snow balling really.
Donna Thomson (04.25):
Yeah. Okay. Exactly. So I guess when we look at the factors that affect books accessibility and usability, there's lots that can come into play. Thinking about the coding behind a website or the design elements actually on the sites, even the language on the site and the way that content has been structured on the page but people often forget about all of these moving elements. Isn't that right?
Clare Reucroft (04.49):
Oh yeah. Absolutely. One of the things that I would always say about content design is it's a team support. I can't do my job to the best of my ability without a great team and it's all those things that you just mentioned there. So it's about the code, it's about the design, it's about the content, all of these play a factor in creating usable, accessible content.
Clare Reucroft (05.15):
And so for example, you've got the color contrasts. You need to be adhering to the WCAG guidelines of having good color contrasts and being aware that people have various access needs around being able to access content that have that by its nature. But I will also say, there are certain things, don't just use color to convey meaning. That's not a useful way of demonstrating content or getting information across.
Clare Reucroft (05.55):
So this particular example would be like a pie chart for example. If you were showing a pie chart to someone who is color blind and that's the only kind of means of conveying a certain dataset or a bit of information, that's rendering that content inaccessible to them. So just one example there, I suppose.
Donna Thomson (06.18):
You mentioned a pie chart and we were talking before we started the recording about printing things off and often you print something off and it's going to be in black and white. So you print off a pie chart that's not accessible to everyone, isn't it?
Clare Reucroft (06.30):
Donna Thomson (06.31):
Another example. Yeah. So really design and accessibility is about designing for everyone, it is going beyond coding for a website. You're not thinking about just screen readers. It is bigger than that. So let's take a look at where content and design really comes into play. So before we delve into the content, let's start looking at inclusive design. So can you tell us or talk us through some of the design elements that affect accessibility and usability?
Clare Reucroft (07.00):
So I'd say it's around understanding your users and really understanding how they behave with their content or with your content and having an understanding of how people read online. We were talking about that before and in particular with the paper. Say for example, if you've got a newspaper, people behave very differently with a newspaper or a magazine than they do with content that's online. So even just having a basic understanding of how people are interacting with your content will in itself make your content more accessible.
Clare Reucroft (07.43):
So I'm thinking here, for example and I'm sorry particularly for those writers who really spend so much time, I'm one of them. I spend so much time on my content but really the reality is that you spend all this time literally for someone to scan it. They will not read it. It's more about creating content that is structured in a way that engages people whilst they are scanning to be like, "Okay, you are giving me what I want. I will give you my time and I will read it properly." So just having an understanding of how people interact and scan and go through your pages is well worth thinking about when we're thinking about accessible content.
Donna Thomson (08.37):
I'm just thinking back as well. Whenever you talked about the low color contrast, I learned recently that low color contrast is the most common accessibility error actually on our websites. So Web Aim 1 million study where they tested 1 million websites for accessibility and find that 86% of homepages had low color contrast.
Donna Thomson (09.02):
We can share the link to the report in the show notes afterwards as it really is an interesting read. You know, there are tools online that can help us to know if the color meets the contrast rules or not.
Clare Reucroft (09.14):
Donna Thomson (09.16):
Ok, so it's great to get a better understanding of how design helps us to see content. But I know there's a lot more that we can do to be implicit to different audiences. Isn't that right?
Clare Reucroft (09.25):
Yeah, absolutely. It's in terms of just thinking about even your language. Just think about for example, I was working on this today. Even things like being really clear in your language, don't just have jargon for the sake of jargon or don't use colloquialisms in the service of tone. Like for example, I came across something today where it was something along the lines of, this might put your tail in the spin or this might send your head spinning because it's essentially drawing to say, "Oh, this is a confusing process." We know that. But whenever I see those kinds of things, what I would say is, firstly, don't tell your user how they feel because they already know how they feel what you can do is tell them what they can do about it. And then secondly, to that kind of co colloquialisms, that's quite a tongue twist to that one.
Clare Reucroft (10.32):
Colloquialisms and the jargon kind of argument I suppose, is does everyone understand what you're saying? Are you 100% sure that you are including everyone by using that kind of language? Because I would definitely wager that there are some people who don't understand what you're saying. And even if English is their first language, they may well not understand. But certainly for people who are second language speakers, whatever language it is that they're reading it in, they probably won't understand. I constantly have this kind of running dialogue with a friend of mine who's from Indonesia and she doesn't understand half the things I say to her. She's a lovely reminder for my kind of content design sensibilities.
Donna Thomson (11.31)
So you mentioned language a lot there. So I know there's structure, there's format, there's language alongside so many other things that we can do. So let's take a look at some of the practical things that we can do under each of these umbrellas. So if we think about structure and we're talking about the way that content is laid out on the page, isn't that right?
Clare Reucroft (11.47):
Donna Thomson (11.47):
You're going to be-
Clare Reucroft (11.49)
Sorry, go on.
Donna Thomson (11.51):
I was just going to ask, you're probably intuitively going to do this anyway but can you maybe give us some best practice examples around the structure and tell us a little bit about why they are so good or what makes them so good.
Clare Reucroft (12.08):
So again, it's so nice chatting to you about this at the end the day because I've actually just been doing this in my day so far. I've been coaching some people into creating great headings and headings are so so important for usable accessible content. If I could just delve a little deeper into headings for a second. So headings are literally, as I was mentioning before, you've got users that don't spend the time actually reading your content. Headings are super important for them to be able to just whiz through and zit down the page and see, "Oh okay, I've got the jist. You are actually going to give me what I want." And then just sort of digging down a little deeper into headings. Make sure that you front-load them. It's usually much better to have action-orientated headings that are front-loaded versus having a question as a heading because actually then if you front load your headings, you're putting in your keywords actually at the start, you're making it much easier for someone to scan because they can hit that word first.
Clare Reucroft (13.24):
An example that I came across today was the cost of visiting a university. Why would you do it as opposed to... My suggestion was, why don't you put it more in line with evaluate the cost of visiting university or something to that effect. Content sign on the flight here.
Donna Thomson (13.49):
At half past five in the evening. This is good.
Clare Reucroft (13.52):
But that's one example of structure. So use your headings and use them well, because they are really going to tell your user whether they are in the right place. And if they're not, that's fine, they can go on their merry way and then they research for something else. But also-
Donna Thomson (14.09):
So the headings themselves really need to tell the story.
Clare Reucroft (14.11):
Yeah. Absolutely. I had to a really fun example of this a couple of weeks ago. I had a really great pair writing session with someone who is insanely knowledgeable about data science and his brain is very different to mine. And he was very much the expert and I was very much the content designer in that situation. But we got through most of the session with me just writing everything that he was telling me. And then I took a breather and took a step back and I was like, "Wait a minute. I haven't got any headings in this."
Donna Thomson (14.44):
Clare Reucroft (14.45):
And he was like, "Oh, just hold that thought right now. I've got to make this digestible for someone." So yeah, just something to bear in mind.
Donna Thomson (14.55):
Headings are easy. We can add them in at the end. If we're in the flow of writing the content, we can take a stand back and go, "What fix do we to really pick out and highlight and the story makes sense with the headings?"
Clare Reucroft (15.09):
One way that you can structure your content and produce it is to just do a complete brain dump, get it all out and then you start to piece together the structure and say, "Oh, okay. Right. Heading here, heading here, heading here." But another way that you can do it, if you're not quite sure and you've got that horrid blank page of doom staring at you, another way that I've seen people do it is they do their headings first and then they get the flow that way as well. So just two approaches there for you.
Donna Thomson (15.44):
Yes. It depends what suits you as a writer where you feel more comfortable starting your writing journey. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Clare Reucroft (15.52):
But yeah, to your other point, white space is so, so, so important in terms of how you structure your content. Yes the content itself is absolutely very important but from a brain perspective, if you are going into a piece of content and all you see or all your eyes can see and take in is just a wall of text that immediately sends a signal to your brain being like, "Oh my God, this is going to be really hard. I don't want to do this."
Donna Thomson (16.33):
Like the ouch.
Clare Reucroft (16.34):
Yeah. The ouch
Donna Thomson (16.35):
Before you read anything.
Clare Reucroft (16.36):
Yeah. The ouch that kind of, "Oh, God, I don't want to read this at all." Immediately, it's giving you a signal of, "This is going to take a lot of my mental processing power to get through this." Whereas from when you're designing content, you've got to be mindful of that and making sure that you give your content enough space to breathe and just send that signal to your user, that, "This is going to be easy. This is going to be okay." And there are various ways that you can do that and depending on the content that you're delivering. If it's quite a complex process, then you might want to use something called progressive disclosure, which is basically where you withhold information and you stagger it basically. So it's being mindful of not overloading basically and just being very-
Donna Thomson (17.31):
Clare Reucroft (17.32):
Yeah. Being very staggered about it. It depends on your content and the need of your users.
Donna Thomson (17.39):
You've made me think just when you were talking about white space. There about the dyslexia font. I don't know if you're familiar with it but that font in itself needs a little bit more room than other fonts just because of the way it is distributed on the letters. [crosstalk 00:17:51] I'm just thinking about, our users can change the fonts on our websites. We don't have any control of that. They're going to do that to suite their own needs and that we need to give the words even room to breathe within the space that we've provided for the content. There's a lot to think about isn't there?
Clare Reucroft (18.09):
There's so much.
Donna Thomson (18.12):
Yeah. Okay. Well, listen, let's move on to format then. And we were talking about the different ways that we can share content. So written content in a blog or audio formats like the podcasts that were on for example and we know that not every format sits every person because we all process information differently. Some people will find it easier to understand by listening and others through taking the time to read every word and soak in all the details. But for some, they don't have that choice. So for example, a person who is blind really does rely on being able to hear the content. So what are some of the things that we would need to consider when it comes to formats?
Clare Reucroft (18.52):
So again, it depends on your user's needs and the content that you're producing. But for example, like we are. We're on a podcast, then my advice would always be, provide a transcript alongside it because yes, we may have a certain section of our audience who have that access need of, they may not be able to hear it so well, but then they can certainly still access the content and get the same experience from reading what was discussed in the podcast. But also you have people who are just busy and they may not necessarily have time to read. Oh, sorry. To listen to half an hour, 45 minutes of a podcast to really get to the nuts and bolts of what it is that they're looking for. I know I certainly had a situation like that recently. And I was actually really frustrated that the thing... I think it was a podcast and it didn't have a transcript. And I was like, "I don't have time to listen. I need my answer now." We don't have the patience. So we're just going to leave and go somewhere else. So that's one example.
Donna Thomson (20.19):
It's funny. I had a very similar example recently, just situational. And it was in the hairdressers so it's a very noisy environment. And I'm looking through my social media and I come across on author who I follow promoting a new book. And I'm thinking, "I need to hear this video. I need to hear what you're saying." Press play no subtitles and of course I couldn't hear because of the busy environment that I was in. And I was dying to learn about the new book but it just shows you that the situation definitely have a massive impact on being able to access the content and make it usable.
Clare Reucroft (20.51):
Yeah. You've just reminded me as well. I find it interesting. One of my favorite authors, she still does this and I don't know whether or not she knows. So Instagram as an example, they do actually offer alt text on the images now or at least that's my experience within the app. It's an option, but for this poet that I follow, she still does. She does her regular caption of whatever it is that she wants to say on her images but then she still within her text caption. She does alt descriptions within the main body of the caption, I suppose. Which in itself actually, I quite like, because again, it's enabling people who actually have that access need to access it in a different way. It's not necessarily even from a screen reader perspective that they have to access it like that. That's still a lovely way for them to access the content in that way as well if that makes sense.
Donna Thomson (21:58):
Providing options. Isn't it?
Clare Reucroft (22.00):
Donna Thomson (22.01):
It's giving the person that's accessing the information the choice to access it in different way.
Clare Reucroft (22.05):
Donna Thomson (22.07):
Alt tags actually were mentioned in the Web Aim report again and I promise I'm not on any commission for Web Aim by mentioning their report but I really did find it quite interesting. So Alt tags is the second most common accessibility error on websites with over 60% of homepages in this particular study missing alt tag. So it seems crazy doesn't it?
Clare Reucroft (22.34):
Donna Thomson (22.35):
That so many are missing and I know that some content monitoring systems will prompt you to put in alt tags but not all of them do. So I guess we just need to get into that habit don't weigh it off. If we're uploading an image, we've got to also add a description because it just makes sense. Doesn't it?
Clare Reucroft (22.53):
Yeah. And my advice would be always check your CMS and see if this functionality is available. I hold my hands up here and say I'm not particularly cody. But get a nice developer on site and they will definitely help you out with this as well. But check your CMS and one thing that you can use, if it's just purely decorative then you can still add into the alt tag input box, just a double quotation mark, which signals to screen reader you can skip this. You can just skip over this and it will minimize that kind of horrid interruption of them reading out the file name as the alt tag. So that's one tip, but as I said, do check your CMS. It may have that functionality or it may not. So it's just worth a look.
Donna Thomson (23.55):
I didn't know you could do that. I've learned something new Clare. Thank you for that.
Clare Reucroft (24.00):
Well, that was passed on from my lovely boss, Sarah Winters. I learned that one from her and I was very proud and very pleased to go back to my desk with that retip.
Donna Thomson (24.10):
A little learning isn't it? So I'll pass it on to someone too. I say thank you for that. Okay. Well, listen, we talked about language slightly but let's talk about it again because this is something that many people tend to forget about or focus less on when it comes to the website. But it's so important. For example, we know the average reading age in the UK is just nine years old. So content creators really need to be mindful of the words that they use in their writing. What are your thoughts on this, Clare?
Clare Reucroft (24.44):
Yeah, absolutely agree. It's touching on what I said before in terms of, so yeah, you've got your jargon and your colloquialisms, be mindful of those. But even just your sentence structure, keep that really simple. I think studies have shown that after about 24 words within a sentence, your comprehension starts to drop a lot. Take a nose dive. Because after 24 words, your brain is still really hanging on to the start of the sentence to, "Okay, right. I'm hanging on, I'm hanging on, I'm hanging on. Oh, I can't do it anymore." You lose the thread. So have really short sentences, make it easy for people to understand. That's just one content tip for free I suppose. It's just be really clear and that's one thing I would say certainly.
Donna Thomson (25.52):
And be human, really. It's a conversation, isn't it? Make it conversational.
Clare Reucroft (25.58):
Absolutely. I was saying that say to one of my clients. We were talking in particular around tone of voice and it's like, that's the whole in and of itself. But I said to them, "Think about, are you talking at your audience or to your audience?" And it's exactly as you were saying that. It is that conversation. It's that dialogue. What I was trying to say is I was trying to really encourage them to say, you're not lecturing them. You're actually just sitting side by side with them and you're going through it with them. That's our job as content designers and producers to really guide people.
Donna Thomson (26.41):
I think we can forget that human element. I know it sounds silly when we're writing content especially in marketing I think about the terms that we use whenever we talk about our audience, we talk about audience personas, users. We forget their people and that's really who we're talking to and the important thing is we want them to understand what we're saying.
Clare Reucroft (27.00):
I think in some ways I that's why I do like it. So users absolutely are humans but within our industry, we refer to them as users. But I think that that term in and of itself is actually really helpful to frame. Sorry, you got my linguist brain going here. It's a really helpful way to frame thinking about our work because we call them users purely for the fact of can they use it? Definitely from a human element as well. I don't necessarily think that users covers that kind of emotional aspects, that more holistic view, that kind of human side of it. But that is something that was always in the background, certainly for me anyway.
Donna Thomson (27.58):
It's nice to have that way reminder that it's humans that we're talking to. Isn't it?
Clare Reucroft (28.02):
Donna Thomson (28.04):
So I want to pick up on something that you said earlier about jargon, because I know there are some instances where jargon really seems unavoidable and I'm thinking really in terms of the tech industry that I work in myself, there's lots of technical terms that we use and support articles that we write. We find it difficult to avoid using those sort of technical jargon words. So do you have any advice that you would give to content writers in these instances?
Clare Reucroft (28.25):
Yeah. I would just say that when you have difficult terms or things that are new to your audience or they may even be familiar to a certain section of your audience and that's fine but when you have people that are coming in and that aren't familiar with those terms, then just take the time to explain it the first time that you use it. Because say for example, a different approach might be using a glossary. My argument or at least my own experiences of that is actually, it takes a lot more mental processing power to flip back and forth between, so what does that mean again? I'm thinking specifically here about the fact that I very recently bought a house and I went through a lot of legal documents.
Donna Thomson (29.28):
That's not pretty language.
Clare Reucroft (29.30):
No. It really wasn't. And there was lots of glossaries. It's funny being a content designer sometimes because I just end up yelling at various things that I come across in my day to day life. Being like, "Why have you not made this more usable?" So that's at least my own experience. Explain something first time you use it. Then that's the nicest and easiest and inclusive way to get people onsite. That makes sense?
Donna Thomson (30.02):
Makes sense. Yeah. That's good advice. Okay. With that in mind, then what advice would you give to content writers that maybe find it challenging to maintain that balance between writing for their industry’s tone of voice and really writing to be as inclusive as they can?
Clare Reucroft (30.20):
It links back to what I was saying before about tone of voice aspect. And so if you're thinking about tone of voice, then really that depends on two factors. It depends on your brand and the sector that you're in. But it also depends on your users and you can play within the space of your. So tone of voice is like a sliding spectrum really. So if we take an example of finance sector, that's a really serious topic. You don't want to mess around with being all casual or, "Here's some fun facts about money." No people don't want to be insane. People just want to know what you're doing with their money or with your money, that kind of thing.
Clare Reucroft (31.17):
But you can still have a sense of understanding and convey a sense of, "We understand where you've come from." I'm just going to lean on my mortgage experience. So like for example, you might be looking at various mortgage products and as a first time buyer, that can be quite daunting. But you can still have content that is informative. Matter of fact. But at the same time friendly and it's still very much inclusive in that way that it's not condescending to you. It's not patronizing you. But it is giving you all the tools that you need to understand all the things that you need to have in order to get a mortgage. For us, just as an example.
Donna Thomson (31.18):
I guess knowing we don't need to write in a very formal way anymore, I guess it does go back to being conversational. What would you actually say to the person if they were sitting in front of you and you had to read out the glossary or the terms and conditions of your mortgage? How would that sound if you read those words out-
Clare Reucroft (32.34):
Donna Thomson (32.38):
Out loud. Probably awful.
Clare Reucroft (32.40):
I know. That is absolutely one of the tips that we always say to people when they're writing content and designing it. If you get them to get stuck, just take step back. Go and talk to someone about it and tell them what it's about because I can guarantee you, you will say it beautifully and you will understand it. And you'll probably end up in a space where you're like, "Oh, right. Yeah. That is actually what I'm doing." So, yeah. It's funny. It's-
Donna Thomson (33.07):
So it makes more sense when you talk it out loud. Sometimes you'd like to record yourself saying something and you think, "That sounded awesome. I need to record that. I need to write that down." Great. Well I think that's going to be so useful to our listeners, Clare. It's definitely a reminder really that when we're writing it's to be understood and it's not to sound very clever. That's the ultimate goal, isn't it? So, listen, we're nearing the end of the session and you've given us so many useful nuggets of advice old rabbit and it really has been great. But just before we finish up, is there a final piece of advice that you'd like to leave with our listeners today?
Clare Reucroft (33.47):
Oh, I would say that your content always starts with your users. So think about how they are arriving at your content, think about what they want from you. And also think about how they behave with and interact with content. So a lot of us snack on content for lack of a better phrase in between things. Have an understanding the sensibility of getting your user to what it is that they want to do as quickly as possible. And that would be my ultimate advice, I suppose.
Donna Thomson (34.35):
It's nice strong content. I like that. I know you use that as well. Brilliant Clare. Well, listen to what a great note to end the session on. I guess my takeaway is the content really does, as you say, starts with the users, the reader, the human. So if we make our content site human, then we're already making steps to make it more inclusive. So listen, thanks so much for all your great insights today. It's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you.
Clare Reucroft (35.00):
Thank you. It's been lovely chatting with you as well.
Donna Thomson (35.05):
Great. Well, listen a big thank you also to our listeners, of course, for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. All the resources that we mentioned in our chat will be referenced in the show notes. So you can catch up on anything that you've missed. If you'd like to learn anything more about Clare, you can visit contentdesignlondon.com. And if you'd like to learn anything more about Texthelp, you can visit texthelp.com.
Donna Thomson (35.37):
One thing to note, you might find our new product ReachDeck interesting, because it's already helping many organizations to keep their contents simple, short and clear. So you can check that out at text.help/accessible-language. So we'll put that link in the show notes so you don't have to take notes now. And finally, don't forget to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode. Thanks again for listening and bye for now.