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Content design for accessibility

Creating inclusive digital experiences for all users

Image of hand with swirls of different coloured paints representing cultural context in content

As more business and government services move online, it’s important that we ensure our digital experiences are accessible to everyone. 

Accessibility means designing content and digital experiences that can be used by people with a wide range of abilities, including those with disabilities that could be: 

  • visual 
  • auditory
  • motor
  • cognitive. 

By creating content that is accessible, everyone can access and enjoy our digital experiences, regardless of their abilities. In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the key principles of content design for accessibility and how they tie in with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

WCAG guidelines

WCAG are the benchmark for website accessibility created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  They have created guidelines under 4 principles:

  • perceivable
  • operable
  • understandable
  • robust.

For each guideline there are success criteria that show what you need to do to make sure your digital product meets WCAG. There are 3 levels for each success criteria:

  • A
  • AA
  • AAA.

Content comes under the principle of understandable and generally is level AAA.

1.    Use clear and simple language

Writing using clear and simple language is not dumbing down content. What you’re doing is making is easier for all users to understand your content the first time they read it.

This means avoiding jargon, technical terms, and complex sentence structures. Instead, use plain language that is easy to understand. This helps people with cognitive disabilities, users reading in a second language and users who are simply looking for quick and easy-to-digest information.

I like to run my content through Hemingway app, which tells me:

  • the reading level
  • how many times I’ve used passive voice 
  • how many sentences are hard or very hard to read.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for clear and simple language:

2.    Use headings and subheadings

Headings and subheadings are essential for making digital content accessible to everyone. 

They allow users to: 

  • scan through content quickly and easily
  • find the information they need
  • skip over information that is not relevant to them.

Headings and subheadings are important for users with visual or cognitive impairments, who may find it difficult to read long blocks of text. 

By using clear and descriptive headings and subheadings, you can make your content more accessible and user-friendly.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for headings:

3.    Use alternative text for images

Images are an important part of many digital experiences, but they can be a barrier for users with visual impairments. 

To make images accessible, you should include alternative text (alt text) that describes the content of the image. This allows users who are using screen readers to understand what the image is about. 

Alt text should provide all the information a user needs to understand the image. It needs to be:

  • concise
  • descriptive
  • accurate.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for alt text:

4.    Provide captions and transcripts for videos

Videos are another important part of many digital experiences, but they can be inaccessible to users with hearing impairments. 

To make videos accessible, you should provide captions or transcripts. 

Captions are text overlays that appear on the screen and provide a written version of the spoken content. 

Transcripts are a written version of the entire video content. 

Captions and transcripts are essential for making videos accessible to everyone, regardless of their hearing abilities.

If you’ve ever started a video on your device while lying in bed and it starts at full volume, when you wanted it on silent, you’ll understand the need for captions for all users.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for captions and transcripts:

5.    Make your content keyboard accessible

Many users with motor impairments rely on a keyboard to navigate through digital experiences. If you’ve every broken your hand or wrist or even nursed a baby, you‘ll understand why keyboard accessibility is important.

This means that your content should be designed to be fully keyboard accessible. This includes making sure that all interactive elements, such as buttons and links, can be accessed using a keyboard. 

It also means ensuring that the order in which content is presented on the page makes sense when using a keyboard.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for keyboard accessible:

6.    Use colour carefully

Colour can be an important aspect of digital design, but it can also be a barrier for users with visual impairments. 

Some users are unable to distinguish between certain colours (such green and blue). Or may have difficulty reading text against a coloured background. 

To make your content accessible, you should use colour carefully and ensure that colour is not the only way to convey important information. For example, if you are using colour to indicate the status of an element, such as a button, you should also provide a textual label or icon to indicate the same information.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for colour:

7.    Test your content with assistive technologies

The best way to ensure that your content is accessible is to test it with assistive technologies. 

These are tools that are designed to help users with disabilities to access digital content, such as: 

  • screen readers 
  • magnifiers
  • voice recognition software. 

By testing your content with these tools, you can identify any accessibility issues. I use a MacBook, so I like to test with the free VoiceOver accessibility function on my laptop. 

You can also test keyboard accessibility by just using your keyboard. This is also great training to recognise the importance of skip links, which WCAG call bypass blocks.

WCAG success criterion

The success criterion for assistive technologies:

While error messaging isn’t specifically part of accessibility, a UI that doesn’t include accepted patterns for error messages will lead to user frustration and see your users trying a different platform. 

WCAG for labels and error messages

The following WCAG success criterion are important for UX writers:

Helpful links: