Sarah Winters, founder of Content Design London who previously led the Government Digital Service’s content strategy, discusses the art of keeping things simple so that they work for everyone
Government guidance on accessibility for public sector websites changed in September – but a recent study by Socitm found that 4 in 10 council homepages fail the basic tests. Most local authorities still have a way to go to achieve website compliance, while being mindful of the fact that public sector mobile apps are also required to be accessible by June 2021. There is a lot of work to do in the months ahead in order to reach everyone in their communities – and avoid breaking the law.
Why it matters and why it’s hard
Accessibility is important. There are 14.1 million disabled people registered in the UK (source: Scope), and an estimated 1.5 million people have a learning disability (source: NHS). This has a profound impact on how they access content. Screen-readers alone are not the answer. Profoundly deaf people use sign language for example, and for many in the community English is their second language. How will you reach them effectively if your content is too cluttered and complex? This is even more important because visiting local authority websites is not a choice, it is a necessity as they provide a trusted source of local information and a gateway to vital services.
Often when we think of disability, we think of permanent ones which are physical and present for us, however there is also the temporary – like an injury to your arm for example, or the situational – perhaps you are a new parent with those same arms occupied with a baby. Accessibility is usability – if you don’t have one, you don’t have the other – and it affects us all in our lives at some time. It. If your website isn’t accessible via desktop or mobile, it’s simply not usable. At a time when councils are facing immense budget pressure and are increasingly looking to make efficiencies by helping citizens to self-serve, it has to be addressed as a priority.
Why is it that making things simple seems to be so hard? In part, it is because there are a lot of misconceptions about what accessibility truly means, and it is wrongly labelled as dumbing down. While keeping things simple sounds easy on the face of it, there is a lot to think about in making less, more. However, with content which is well thought out and constructed, you have the potential to open everything up and make things as inclusive as we all deserve.
Headings, format, language
Making content accessible and usable is about valuing people’s most precious commodity – their time. There is a short window of opportunity to capture people’s attention and keep it when they come to your website so think carefully about your page layout. The first 11-15 words on a page are important, especially when thinking about access needs. The person is asking: am I in the right place, am I going to get what I need? When looking at a page, humans are lazy. It takes fewer eye muscles to look down than across and they will naturally look down the left-hand side. Headings tell a story – they help people to scan the page so they can decide whether to read on or not – so use them.
Next, format. Videos might seem like a great way to put your message across, but captions and a transcript to accompany it are just as important. This is both for accessibility reasons – so anyone with a hearing impairment can access the content, but also for usability reasons – like someone on a bus with no headphones. Always question the medium you choose to deliver your message. Perhaps that video would’ve been better as a written piece of content.
On language, don’t use jargon, acronyms or idioms. People may not understand them and you could alienate them. It is difficult for anyone who is not used to those terms, anyone reading it as a second language and people with autism. Clear language will help everybody. For people in a hurry, simply written content is easier to scan and understand. For those with cognitive impairments, easy to understand words and sentences need less cognitive effort. Clear navigation labels and headings means less clicking and scrolling for people with motor impairments, while for those with visual impairments, short and simple sentences convey meaning in a smaller visual field.
You don’t have to use formatting to stand out. Changing sentence length and punctuation can have an effect on people, as your brain looks for rhythm in a piece of text. Using bold or italics can break that rhythm so do it with care and purpose – and leave enough space on the page to allow people to think.
Moving beyond misleading metrics
We all look to metrics to track how well we are doing, but when it comes to assessing how well your content is performing, web traffic is purely for vanity. Thousands of people may visit your site, but if they can’t find what they need, it is not a measure of success. We also hear of time spent on page being used as a benchmark of success. Again, struggling through content and having to stay longer to find what you need is not something to celebrate. Moving beyond metrics means understanding accessibility and usability at a personal level. Find a pain that has some relevance for you. Bring up your content on a tiny screen with glare. Add in a distraction of some sort, and imagine your hands hurt. Now use your content, and think again.
Accessibility is not a box-checking exercise to comply with government guidance. It is more than code and colours. Accessibility is usability. If you are making it difficult for people to access your content, you are wasting their time and causing them pain and discomfort. They won’t find what they need, and you won’t get your message across. Content will only work where your audience is, and if you help people, they will come back. Some of the most successful campaigns ever run have used simple, accessible language. Just shortening sentences can open up content to a wider audience. To help, we’ve created a set of readability guidelines – a style guide which is both accessible and usable, with supporting evidence and data – open for all to use.
It’s not dumbing down. It’s opening up.
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