Creating Accessible Content: A Comprehensive Guide
Content editors can help make the web a more accessible place, one published moment at a time.
Although web accessibility begins on a foundation built by content strategists, designers, and engineers, the buck does not stop there (or at site launch). Content marketers play a huge role in maintaining web accessibility standards as they publish new content over time.
“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.” - W3
Why Accessibility Standards are Important to Marketers
Web accessibility standards are often thought to assist audiences who are affected by common disabilities like low vision/blindness, deafness, or limited dexterity. In addition to these audiences, web accessibility also benefits those with a temporary or situational disability. This could include someone who is nursing an injury, someone who is working from a coffee shop with slow wifi, or someone who is in a public space and doesn’t want to become a nuisance to others by playing audio out loud.
Accessibility relies on empathy and understanding of a wide range of user experiences. People perceive your content through different senses depending on their own needs and preferences. If someone isn’t physically seeing the blog post you wrote or can’t hear the audio of the podcast you published, that doesn’t mean you as a marketer don’t care about providing that information to that audience, it just means you need to adapt in the way you are delivering that information to that audience.
10 Tips for Publishing Accessible Content
These tips have been curated and compiled from a handful of different resources including the WCAG standards set forth by W3C, and our team of accessibility gurus at Palantir. All of the informing resources are linked in a handy list at the end of this post.
1. Consider the type of content and provide meaningful text alternatives.
Text alternatives should help your audience understand the content and context of each image, video, or audio file. It also makes that information accessible to technology that cannot see or hear your content, like search engines (which translates to better SEO).
Types of text alternatives you can provide:
- Images - Provide alternative text.
- Audio - Provide transcripts.
- Video - Provide captions and video descriptions in action.
This tip affects those situational use cases mentioned above as well. Think about the last time you sent out an email newsletter. If someone has images turned off on their email to preserve cellular data, you want to make sure your email still makes sense. Providing a text alternative means your reader still has all of the context they need to understand your email, even without that image.
2. Write proper alt text.
Alternative text or alt text is a brief text description that can be attributed to the HTML tag for an image on a web page. Alt text enables users who cannot see the images on a page to better understand your content. Screen readers and other assistive technology can’t interpret the meaning of an image without alt text.
With the addition of required alternative text, Drupal 8 has made it easier to build accessibility into your publishing workflow. However, content creators still need to be able to write effective alt text. Below I’ve listed a handful of things to consider when writing alt text for your content.
- Be as descriptive and accurate as possible. Provide context. Especially if your image is serving a specific function, people who don’t see the image should have the same understanding as if they had.
- If you’re sharing a chart or other data visualization, include that data in the alt text so people have all of the important information.
- Avoid using “image of,” “picture of,” or something similar. It’s already assumed that the alt text is referencing an image, and you are losing precious character space (most screen readers cut off alt text at around 125 characters). The caveat to this is if you are describing a work of art, like a painting or illustration.
- No spammy keyword stuffing. Alt text does help with SEO, but that’s not it’s primary purpose, so don’t abuse it. Find that happy medium between including all of the vital information and also including maybe one or two of those keywords you’re trying to target.
3. Establish a hierarchy.
Accessibility is more than just making everything on a page available as text. It also affects the way you structure your content, and how you guide your users through a page. When drafting content, put the most important information first. Group similar content, and clearly separate different topics with headings. You want to make sure your ideas are organized in a logical way to improve scannability and encourage better understanding amongst your readers.
4. Use headings, lists, sections, and other structural elements to support your content hierarchy.
Users should be able to quickly assess what information is on a page and how it is organized. Using headings, subheadings and other structural elements helps establish hierarchy and makes web pages easily understandable by both the human eye and a screen reader. Also, when possible, opt for using lists over tables. Tables are ultimately more difficult for screen reader users to navigate.
If you’re curious to see how structured your content is, scan the URL using WAVE, an accessibility tool that allows you to see an outline of the structural elements on any web page. Using WAVE can help you better visualize how someone who is using assistive technologies might be viewing your page.
5. Write a descriptive title for every page.
This one is pretty straight forward. Users should be able to quickly assess the purpose of each page. Screen readers announce the page title when they load a web page, so writing a descriptive title helps those users make more informed page selections.
Page titles impact:
- Users with low vision who need to be able to easily distinguish between pages
- Users with cognitive disabilities, limited short-term memory, and reading disabilities.
6. Be intentional with your link text.
Write link text that makes each link’s purpose clear to the user. Links should provide info on where you will end up or what will happen if you click on that link. If someone is using a screen reader to tab through 3 links on a page that all read “click here,” that doesn’t really help them figure out what each link’s purpose is and ultimately decide which link they should click on.
- Any contextual information should directly precede links.
- Don’t use urls as link text; they aren’t informative.
- Avoid writing long paragraphs with multiple links. If you have multiple links to share on one topic, it’s better to write a short piece of text followed by a list of bulleted links.
EX: Use "Learn more about our new Federated Search application" not "Learn more".
7. Avoid using images of text in place of actual text.
The exact guideline set forth by W3 here is “Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.”
There are many reasons why this is a good practice that reach beyond accessibility implications. Using actual text helps with SEO, allows for on-page search ability for users, and creates the ability to highlight for copy/pasting. There are some exceptions that can be made if the image is essential to include (like a logo). Providing alt text also may be a solution for certain use cases.
8. Avoid idioms, jargon, abbreviations, and other nonliteral words.
The guideline set forth by W3 is to “make text content readable and understandable.” Accessibility aside, this is important for us marketers In the Drupal-world, because it’s really easy to include a plethora of jargon that your client audience might not be familiar with. So be accessible AND client-friendly, and if you have to use jargon or abbreviations, make sure you provide a definition of the word, link to the definition, or include an explanation of any abbreviations on first reference.
Think about it this way: if you are writing in terms people aren’t familiar with, how will they know to search for them? Plain language = better SEO.
9. Create clear content for your audience’s reading level.
For most Americans, the average reading level is a lower secondary education level. Even if you are marketing to a group of savvy individuals who are capable of understanding pretty complicated material, the truth is, most people are pressed for time and might become stressed if they have to read super complicated marketing materials. This is also important to keep in mind for people with cognitive disabilities, or reading disabilities, like dyslexia.
I know what you’re thinking, “but I am selling a complicated service.” If you need to include technical or complicated material to get your point across, then provide supplemental content such as an infographic or illustration, or a bulleted list of key points.
10. Clearly label form input elements.
If you are in content marketing, chances are you have built a form or two in your time. No matter whether you’re creating those in Drupal or an external tool like Hubspot, you want to make sure you are labeling form fields clearly so that the user can understand how to complete the form. For example, expected data formats (such as day, month, year) are helpful. Also, required fields should be clearly marked. This is important for accessibility, but also then you as a marketer end up with better data.
Here are a few guides I've found useful in the quest to publish accessible content:
- Content Style Guide: Writing for Accessibility (MailChimp) - offers many tips on writing accessible content
- Readability Test Tool (WebFX) - a tool you can use to test the readability of your content
- Tips for Conducting Usability Studies With Participants With Disabilities (Smashing Magazine) - a blog post outlining different things to consider when running usability studies with disabled participants
- Writing Simply and Clearly (WebAIM) - guidelines for writing understanable web content
- Introduction to Web Accessibility (W3) - an overview of all things web accessibility
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) - recommendations for making web content accessible
- Digital Content Standard (Transport for London) - offers many tips on writing effective online content.
- How Screen Readers Read Content (WebAim) - can help you understand the way your content is conveyed to users with low vision and blindness.
- Understanding WCAG 2.0 (W3) - a comprehensive deep dive into each individual guideline.