In part one of our web accessibility series, we covered the importance of accessibility and discovered basic principles for producing inclusive designs. In this instalment, we’ll focus on writing with web accessibility in mind – useful information for marketing teams, bloggers and copywriters.
Accessible writing for the web
People access websites using a variety of different devices, browsers, and technologies, including screen readers and Braille interfaces. This means that your content can be interpreted in various ways. Writing with accessibility in mind is highly beneficial: it shows that you care about your users, and as a bonus, it can also help search engines to direct more traffic your way.
There are seven important points to consider when writing for all audiences:
Text should be written in a simple and concise way, avoiding any jargon or slang. Use plain language to make sure it’s going to be easily understandable, unless you’re writing for specific audience (e.g. scientific research). A general guideline is to target the reading level of a nine-year-old. If you need to use an acronym that the user may not be familiar with, explain what it means when you first use it: for example, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
2. Sensory characteristics and directional language
Page content shouldn’t be referred to using sensory characteristics such as shape, location or colour. Nor should it be declared by its position on the page. For example, ‘see the green triangle in the top left’. The location of elements could change and these descriptions rely on the assumption that the user has access to the visual layout. It’s better to say: ‘select from these options’, instead of ‘select from the options in the bottom-left corner’.
3. Structure and headings
Text should be well formatted and structured, making use of headings. Headings are the most important part of the page: they should be short, clear, and used within pre-created heading tags (we don’t advise using bold as a substitute for headings). Structural elements such as headings should only ever be used to create structure, not for stylistic purposes. Correctly created headings help users to skim-read pages to easily find information. Assistive technologies also let users jump between headings to find what they are looking for without having to scroll through the whole page.
Writing in capitals increases the cognitive effort needed to process a word, as the letterforms are less defined. According to the government’s own guidelines, capital letters are 13-18% harder to read, so it’s best to avoid them. What’s more, some assistive technologies read text written in capitals letter by letter as if it were an acronym. Unless the text actually is an acronym, it’s better to write in sentence or title case.
5. Link text
The purpose of a link should be clear from the link text alone. Try to avoid ambiguous text such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’ as this fails to communicate the purpose of the link. Instead, indicate the relevant information about the link: for instance, ‘Part 1 of How to create an accessible website’. The exception to this rule is when the link would be ambiguous to users in general, e.g. linking the word ‘marketing’ within a sentence. Additionally, avoid phrases such as ‘link to...’ as assistive technologies will automatically expose link schematics to the user.
Images are a powerful addition to text content, but it’s good to remember that not all users will be able to view them. Some images might be essential to support the message within your text, and these should always have an alternative description, known as ‘alt text’. It’s not vital that images added purely for decorative purposes have a description (although we do recommend it, as alt text is also useful for SEO). When writing a text alternative to images, try to use meaningful descriptions and set out the function of the image or the information it contains. In all cases, avoid phrases such as ‘image of…’ as users will already know that they’ve encountered an image.
- Supporting images: The text alternative for images that support your words or provide additional information should explain the content or function of the image. If your image communicates a lot of information, the alt text should try to summarise it. For example, when writing alt text for a graph or infographic, you can describe the overall data trend.
- Images of text: Images of text should only be used as a last resort and if so, the alt text should match the text in the image.
- Image captions: If an image has a supporting caption, alternative text may not be necessary, as the information is already contained in the caption. In this case, you’ll only need to add alt text if it will provide something new.
7. Captions and transcripts
Transcripts are alternative text versions of audio content synchronised with a video. They are necessary for people with hearing impairments, and can also be useful for non-native English speakers.
Looking for help with making your content more accessible? Ask our content strategists to review or create pages with your users in mind.
Tools and resources
- Stanford University tips on Writing with Web Accessibility in Mind
- MailChimp’s Content Style Guide includes a simple guide to Writing for accessibility
- Government Digital Service: Content design: planning, writing and managing content
- Zapier: The Writer’s Guide to Making Accessible Web Content
- The National Council for Voluntary Organisations: How to write accessible web content
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): Tips on writing for web accessibility
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