Six tips for creating great accessible web content for everyone

This blog has been updated! Originally published 08/12/2016. 

Many people are surprised to learn that the average reading age of adults in the UK is nine - that means the average person reading your website has the reading ability normally expected of a nine yearA birthday card with a cartoon boy and girl on it. Text displays: Happy birthday nine year old old. And most people don't realise that at least one in ten visitors to a website will be dyslexic or that many more than that will have cognitive difficulties or a learning disability.

You may be losing readership because your writing is not accessible. Whatever their reading age, accessible writing makes your content more enjoyable for your audience. To help you make sure your content is easily understood and clear to navigate, use these six tips. You may also wish to join our affordable, practical course to help you carve great content that's accessible to all audiences.

1 Structure your content

You can think of headings as the outline upon which your content hangs.

Visually, headings provide a way for people to skim your content looking for a topic of interest to them. When properly marked up as headings within your CMS, then these same headings are also exposed to assistive technology like screen readers, enabling users of this software to also benefit from a similar skim reading approach.

Watch the video below to learn more about how to write descriptive headings and labels.

Similarly, using structural elements like bulleted lists for lists of content, or tables for tabular data (like a timetable) can make the content more accessible, again, particularly for people using assistive technology or who have literacy difficulties. 

2 Write for your audience

You are not necessarily your audience! Good practise for content is to write using a similar vocabulary as mainstream newspapers to keep the content accessible to as many people as possible. Of course, if you are writing for a specific audience, this will vary. For instance, if you are writing a technical introduction to a specific new mechanical component for engineers, you will use appropriate language and phrasing for your audience.

Avoid using jargon that may be unfamiliar to users. If you must use jargon or specific terminology, then include and link to a glossary, or just expand upon the meaning of phrases or acronyms inline.

3 Not just text

A wall of text is off-putting to many users, but particularly so for people with literacy difficulties.

Structuring content using headings and lists (as mentioned above), can help to break up walls of text. Using images or other graphical elements can go further still.
For instance, infographics can convey a process in a visually engaging manner, and charts can convey the core meaning of data in an intuitive and concise way. Using elements like this can further break up text, making content more accessible still.
Remember when using illustrations in this way that they will need text alternatives to cater to any people who cannot perceive them. Speaking of which…

4 Provide alternative text for images

You should use images where possible to add visual interest to articles. It is important that you consider users who cannot perceive visual content like images though. Users may not perceive images for a variety of reasons. The user may be blind, have images disabled to conserve bandwidth, or the image itself may experience an error preventing it from loading.
Most CMSs will allow you to provide a text alternative, or alt, for an image. This will be presented to users who cannot perceive images.
As the person including the image on the page, you alone have the best idea of the intent of this image – you should always think about what it is trying to convey and what purpose does it serve. When writing the alt text, you should look to convey a similar meaning through text. This will vary depending on the type of image e.g.

  • Functional images (images that link, or otherwise interactive) should generally have alt text that describes what they do
  • Informative images (images that are charts, or that otherwise convey information) should have alt text that describes the information that the image contains
  • Decorative images – those that add no meaning to the page – should be given blank alt text so that they can be ignored by assistive technologies.

This is a topic all by itself, so some useful links to read more are included below.

5 Front load key information

Start sentences, paragraphs, and headings with key information. Users will typically read the first sentence or two of a paragraph to see if the information is relevant, before moving on if it is not.

6 Fewer words, greater impact

Be economical with your words. Don’t use 10 words if 5 will do. If you can, include an estimated reading time for your article so users can work out if should start it now, or save it for later when they have more time.

Looking to learn more about accessible copywriting? Join our affordable, practical course to help you carve great content that's accessible to all audiences.
As well as your writing, you can improve the accessibility of your documents, presentations and PDFs in our upcoming courses: 

How to create accessible documents and presentations
- PDF Accessibility 

Further resources