There are many design and development considerations to take into account when building new sites and applications to ensure the resulting experience is user-friendly and accessible. And while there are several tools to help designers and developers adhere to the guidelines, making sure the actual content—the copy and multimedia, for example—is truly accessible can be a bit less straightforward.
What does accessibility mean for your content?
When we talk about accessible content, the principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) state that content should be “perceivable, operable, understandable, robust.” In short, this means that—across a range of current and future clients and devices—the user should be able to tell the content is there, should be able to navigate, interact with and understand it. When creating digital content and applications, there are useful benchmarks designers and developers can aim for, as well as many tools to help ensure those benchmarks are met. We can test a page's navigability by keyboard, confirm that text alternatives are included where necessary, and make sure there is enough contrast between background and foreground elements.
But when it comes to the content itself, this process can become a bit less straightforward. It may not be as easy to test the words or multimedia we use, but it's no less important when aiming for genuine accessibility and inclusiveness.
Why the content itself matters
Everyone deserves equal access to information, which is why making sure as many individuals as possible can actually reach the content on a page or in an application is one of the pillars of digital accessibility. But if that content can't be understood once the user accesses it, can we really call it accessible? Creating a truly accessible experience is the responsibility of not only the designers and developers behind the interface but also the producers of the content being presented through that interface, as well.
What are some of the characteristics of accessible content?
WCAG 2.1 Guideline 3.1, for example, provides criteria for making text content more readable and easy to understand, which are both crucial when it comes to accessibility. These include guidelines for ensuring the language of the content can be determined, the meaning of abbreviations and uncommon words can be clarified, and for accommodating different reading levels. The more readable content is, the more people it can reach, and when content is well-organized and written in a way that's easier to understand it can help reduce the barriers people may encounter in relation to literacy, language proficiency, and comprehension.
Creating content that is inclusive is also important. It can be challenging not to revert to some of the patterns and language that tend to be considered the default in a language or culture, but these norms can exclude and alienate large groups of people. Self-identification options on forms are a classic example of this, but it applies to plain text content, as well. It's much easier to become engaged when one feels seen, and it's much easier to absorb information when it's presented in a way that's relatable, so inclusive content has both the potential to have a greater reach and a greater impact.
Improving written content can go a long way, but—especially these days—the content that users are consuming on a day-to-day basis goes well beyond just words. Images, videos, and audio are a significant part of many digital experiences and also require careful consideration, the most important being when and how to use them. When multimedia is used to present actual information, it should be adding something valuable to the experience, and—even then—appropriate alternatives need to be provided for those who may not be able to perceive the content in its original form.
Taking it a step further
As with anything regarding user experience, the best way to continuously improve the accessibility of content is to test and get feedback on it from diverse groups of people. By taking a user-centric approach to content creation in addition to following accessibility guidelines, we can gradually make progress toward removing the barriers to information that exist even when content is accessed online.
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