Note: This article is intended as general guidance only and should not be taken as legal advice. Specific requirements apply if you are creating a website for an Australian government organisation.
If managing website content is part of your job description, you’ve no doubt been hammered with missives about the importance of accessibility. Making your site easy to use for as many people as possible makes sense, right? … But isn’t that the role of designers and developers? Well, yes – and no.
It’s possible for a site to be technically compliant with web accessibility guidelines but still fall down on the content side. Before we launch into how this can happen, let me share a bit of background on why you should care about this (if you’re not legally obliged to).
Why does accessibility matter?
In its purest sense, web accessibility is about designing websites and online materials to make them more user-friendly for people with disabilities. There are many things that can affect the way people experience the web, from physical disabilities like blindness, deafness or limited mobility, to learning difficulties like dyslexia. According to the Global Economics of Disability 2016 Annual Report, nearly one in five people live with some form of disability – so that alone should make you stand up and take note.
Making your website more accessible to users with disabilities also happens to go hand-in-hand with improving the overall user experience. Consider, for example, the experience of someone trying to use your site in low light, or with a poor internet connection. Or someone who is time-poor and needs to find information quickly – which, let’s face it, covers most of us.
Plus, what’s good for accessibility is generally also good for your performance in search rankings. And if all that wasn’t enough incentive for you, a recent high-profile case against Coles indicates that we could actually be moving towards some level of accessibility becoming a legal requirement, especially if your website provides a service that people need to access.
Ok, but what does all this have to do with content?
Web accessibility is usually associated with the design and functionality of a site, but the reality is that content plays a far greater role than many people realise. Below are six common ‘crimes’ committed by content creators against accessibility.
#1: No alt text on images
Alternative text, or ‘alt text’, is the description that’s displayed when an image cannot be loaded correctly. It’s designed for visitors with screen readers or browsers that don’t support images (or have them disabled). Alt text is a really simple way to improve the accessibility of your site – and it’s also good for SEO (especially when users are searching for images). Yet so many websites still don’t use it.
Your alt text should be no more than about 15 words long and should capture the essence of the image. Importantly, alt text should be helpful to the user. Details like image size and internal file names have no business being part of your alt text. Most content management systems will give you the option to enter alt text when you insert an image. If you’re using Kentico (like most of our clients), click on the image in the page to open the editing window, then go to the General tab to display the alternate text field.
#2: Not providing a text alternative for audio or video content
Using video or audio on your site can be a good way to deepen user engagement, but it can also be problematic for people with accessibility issues. If you’re using video, the best option is to provide closed captions – that is, textual descriptions of the sounds on a video, synchronised with the audio. Closed captions detail not just the spoken words but also sounds like laughter or applause. They help deaf and hard-of-hearing users to understand the content of your video but they can also be good for people viewing the content in a noisy environment, or in a place where they don’t want to make too much noise themselves (for example in a library, or on public transport).
Captions should not be too fast to read. If the dialogue is faster than about 200 words per minute, unimportant words and repetitions should be omitted. Captions should also be presented in a font and colour that’s easy to read.
If you’re using audio-only content, you should provide users with a transcript. Again, this can also have positive flow-on effects for SEO.
#3: Cramming too much on a page
An important part of making a website accessible is providing ways to help users easily navigate around and find the content they’re looking for. The odds of straightforward navigation are stacked against your visitors if your site is full of pages that are trying to be everything to everyone. Each page on your site should have a direct and specific focus that is unique from other pages on the site. Don’t fall into the trap of creating pages that are trying to ‘do too much’.
Another trap that content editors sometimes fall into is trying to squeeze too much text content into carousels and not giving users enough time to read it. Carousels, or ‘sliders’, can be useful if you need to display a series of content items on a page but text should be used very sparingly in them.
#4: Jargon overload
According to the WCAG 2.0 guideline on readability, web text should be written in a way that the average Year 9 student should be able to comprehend it. However, when you’re consistently exposed to the jargon of a particular industry, it’s easy to forget that it’s not part of the common vernacular. Industry-specific terms may be appropriate if you have a very niche target audience, but if you are trying to appeal to the general public you are better off replacing jargon with plain language. This approach benefits everyone, including people with cognitive impairment, low literacy and those who are not familiar with the language or topic. As an added bonus, people are more likely to search for plain language terms, so you’ll probably be rewarded with better search rankings.
If your website relates to an industry or topic that has a lot of internal jargon or technical terms, consider conducting user experience testing to determine the language most often used by your target audience. You can then use the results to create an editorial style guide to outline preferred terms and help content creators weed out any unnecessarily complex language.
#5: Poor page structure
Like any good document, a web page should be clearly structured, with a descriptive page title, properly formulated headings, and appropriate formatting like bullet points and italicised or bolded words for emphasis. This is essential for screen readers to navigate a page but it also makes it easier for every user to scan the page and understand its intent.
Your CMS should have an editor toolbar to enable you to add elements like headings, tables and lists. When you manually style your text to be bigger and bolder to make it look like a heading, you’re playing havoc with the site’s accessibility. Ditto when you use dashes or asterisks as list markers, rather than proper bullet points.
You should also pay attention to your page title. This is the text that appears at the top of your browser window. It is also displayed in search results and when links are posted on social networking sites. Page titles are often generated by default, e.g. based on the page heading, or the title of a blog, but this can be confusing if the heading doesn’t offer a clear description of what the page is about. If your CMS automates page titles, find out if they can be edited so you can make sure they offer a useful description of the content. If you’re using Kentico, you can edit page titles in the Metadata tab of the Pages application.
Breaking down the barriers
Ensuring that you don’t commit any of these ‘crimes’ with your web content won’t automatically give you an accessible website. But it will help to support the accessibility of your site, and it will also help to give your site visitors a better all-round experience. Making a website accessible is about removing barriers, not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.