Top tips for creating accessible, useful written content

Writers and content editors want their work to be useful to readers. Equally, organisations want their content to be read and understood by as many people as possible.

To make content useful and readable, it has to be easily understood by a large number of people, including those with disabilities. Nearly 14% of the UK population has a disability or ‘differability’ whether that be sight loss, dyslexia, memory loss, autism or something completely different. 

Here Jack Garfinkel, senior content designer at Scope and Abi James, senior accessibility and usability consultant at AbilityNet (and chair of the new technology committee for the British Dyslexia Association/ BDA) offer their top tips on creating accessible, useful written content.

Jack Garfinkel, Scope:

  • Be brief: Keep words and sentences short and to the point - there’s a good chance 200 words will be more accessible than 800 words.
  • Grammar and structure: We find Hemingway app very useful for this.
  • Write for young people: The average reading age in the UK is about nine years old. 
  • Audience/ staff research: Do you know what problems the people you are writing for are trying to solve? What information can’t they find that you can provide? Ask them via user research, ask internal staff who work with them, and if you have a call centre / helpline - find out the regular questions that are being asked. 
  • Content checklist: What problems is the piece trying to solve? Make a clear list and check it after the first draft. We often work together in real life or on Skype to co-create pieces and make sure they meet a strong criteria of what is useful for the audience. 
  • Do you really need new content? Maintaining a website is less glorious and often slower than adding new copy. But adding new copy all the time can make a website confusing and outdated. It’s better, and clearer for your audience if you spend time maintaining and updating what you already have.
  • Ask users to rate your content. Citizens Advice has good a system for this and uses it to inform changes to content, here. 
  • Try not to use slang and old metaphors: Not everyone understands them. This could be because their native language is isn’t the one you’re writing in, or their condition means that they may take what you write literally. 

 

Abi James, AbilityNet and the British Dyslexia Association (BDA):

Content can have really big impact on accessibility. Sometimes more than people think. For example, do you know if a visitor to your site can see the content? Do you know what barriers your content is presenting for people with hidden or cognitive disabilities? Fully check your site using screenreader software and with different user groups if you can, and take note of the following points:

Clear language and good content

  • Write content to be easy to read for your target audience. Don’t attempt to sound more sophisticated or complex than is necessary.
  • Acronyms and abbreviations are hard to read and understand. Use these sparingly and define them when possible.
  • Good content is about reinforcing messages. Use multiple means of conveying a message to ensure the message reaches as a wide a number of people as possible. Use images to support what’s being said and use text to explain what’s in an image.

Page Layout, font size, spacing and lists

  • Content accessibility is also to do with layout and structure of content, web pages and articles. Check out the BDA style guide which looks at how to make content dyslexia-friendly.
  • For example, breaking down paragraphs into bullet point and making sure there are regular headings (formatted using the headings option in your editing tools) will help more people get a better understanding of the piece. 
  • Using more paragraphs, heading and bullet points also helps people who are navigating with assistive technology, such as a screenreader (for sight loss), to get a quick overview and to navigate through the piece more easily.
  • Ensure that people can increase the font size and spacing without obscuring some of the page/ article. 
  • Check your pieces in a ‘reader view’ option within a browser. If you’ve structured the content correctly, when in reader view the piece will read simply and like the page of a book. Audience members who read better with minimal distraction will particularly appreciate this.
  • Use the bullet point option in your content management system/ website editor rather than dashes or asterisks. This will mean a screen readers and text-to-speech tools can more distinguish the separate points on the list and phrase them appropriately.
  • Understand that punctuation will be used for tone and pauses by a screen reader and text-to-speech. For example, voices will read out a sentence with a question mark using a questioning tone, rather than stating that there’s a question mark there. 
  • Links need to describe what they’re linking to. This is more clear for screen reader users rather than lots of links saying ‘click here’. They also help readers who are scanning through your page as they will often focus on links as important points. 

Images, alt text and picture captions

  • Alt text: There can be a bit of confusion with labelling images in Content Management Systems. If the image is useful, put a description of it in the ‘alt text’ box so that readers with sight loss will get the description read out to them via their screen reader.
  • If the image is not useful or important in the understanding of the piece, mark the image as decorative or add a null alt text “ “ (except for on social media - see below).
  • Picture captions are also really helpful for all users. It helps make the connection between the image and text. Putting a caption for your picture directly next to or underneath the image is a good idea. Think carefully about how to describe complex images or infographics. Sometimes it is best to link to a text or table which provides a detailed description of the image.

Social media

  • Social media posts: Always use alt text on social media if the platform supports it. Often an image is the main part of the post so it’s more important to explain what’s in the image. Photos with written words in them, ie inspirational quotes, are often not accessible at all. If you want those with sight loss or blindness to understand your posts, it’s best to write the full text from the image along with the image.
  • Hashtags: Hashtags are helpful for many people to gain context and more easily find content, but be carefully of using acronyms which may be unfamiliar to readers.
  • Punctuation: Don’t leave out punctuation on social media posts unless absolutely necessary, as the post will make much less sense to a screen reader and will make posts harder to understand for those with reading difficulties such as dyslexia.

Check out the recording of our 'Top tips for publishing accessible written content' webinar.


 

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