Content strategy and accessibility – a natural partnership

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Technical writer Karen Mardahl outlines the benefits of working accessibility into your content strategy and provides some easy how-tos and resources to get you started.

Karen MardahlIf we as professionals are embracing content strategy then we as professionals are also embracing accessibility.

Accessibility seems to be avoided in strategy planning because it is “too expensive”, “too time-consuming”, “too much bother”, “irrelevant for us” – or completely unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, accessibility does become expensive and time-consuming when it is added late in a project lifecycle and not from Day 1.

So what is accessibility?

It’s about making it possible for people with disabilities to easily and independently use whatever is on the internet or in their physical environment.

Think about curb cuts (aka dropped kerbs). It’s a design that provides a smooth transition between sidewalk and street for people in wheelchairs. Others benefit, too: parents with baby carriages, for example.

This is where the idea of inclusion and universal design comes in. You design for one group, but many others reap the benefit. This is why people need to get out of the mindset that “blind people don’t visit our site”. You might be surprised to learn how your customers use your website, documentation or product.

That is why content strategy is important. It gives you a framework for planning your strategy – and accessibility is a part of that framework.

Accessibility is really about inclusion. It is making sure that everyone who uses the website, the documentation or the product will be able to do just that – use it. It is about removing barriers. We want people to find the information they need when they need it. We want people to have a pleasant user experience whenever they use our work. We’re in business, so let’s face it – we want happy and satisfied customers.

Part of your content strategy requires knowing the situation of those customers. Are they accessing documentation on a mobile device? Are they working in a noisy environment? Can they only use the keyboard? Evaluating all possible scenarios for using your product means proper testing with a variety of people, including people with disabilities. Only then can you get a true picture of your potential audience.

Is your website P.O.U.R.?

One way to sum up the accessibility section of your content strategy is using the acronym from W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0: P.O.U.R. These letters represent for key concepts that you can apply to websites and documentation as a way to measure accessibility.

  • P for Perceivable. I assume you have a message for your customers so make sure it is perceivable. Use alt text to describe images. Provide alternative (multiple) formats for your deliverables to accommodate different needs and different environments. Caption those videos – all of them.
  • O for Operable. Everyone should be able to activate buttons and links, fill in forms and navigate the material – regardless of motor skills.
  • U for Understandable. Clarity. Plain language. Make sure your words – and design – are understood.
  • R for Robust. Make sure your material scales and works on any device – computer, mobile phone, computer with assistive technology, and whatever gadget comes out next year. The use of standards, for example, should support your efforts in this category.

Who doesn’t want the result of their work to be perceivable, operable, understandable, or robust? An acronym like P.O.U.R. will make it easy to remember accessibility in your current and future content strategy work.

The wider benefits of P.O.U.R

Think about curb cuts and inclusion again. Adding captions to a video is the first step in adding subtitles to reach your markets in other countries. Captions benefit those who work in a noisy environment. A transcript is also an option, which should add SEO benefits. Clear or plain language can benefit those with dyslexia, an ‘invisible’ disability often forgotten when writing technical documentation. It will also benefit the person without dyslexia who needs to find that specific bit information quickly.

The attitude should be “we’ll probably benefit many people even though we are making this design specifically for people with motor disabilities”.

Content strategy and accessibility

Whenever I see content strategy discussions, I see accessibility. It’s there in the planning, creation, and governance of your content. Your product should not be setting up barriers to exclude people. That would be an unpleasant user experience! Aim, instead, for inclusion.

Because I feel it is so natural to be inclusive, I consider it a natural item on any checklist for content strategy. Ideally, it should be the right thing to do. After all, this is all about communication – communication between people. Wouldn’t it be rude, like bullying in the playground, if anyone was excluded and locked out of any communication.

Metrics, not feelings, are what businesses require, however, and that is where the framework for content strategy can assist accessibility – by integrating various accessibility checklists and evaluations in your content strategy.

With only four letters of the alphabet, you should be well on your way to incorporating accessibility into your content strategy.

Recommended resources

Karen Mardahl is a technical writer in Denmark who credits her mother, a special education teacher, for opening her mind to accessibility at an early age. She evangelises about accessibility at @stcaccess and www.stc-access.org. Her curiosity about the world and all forms of communication is revealed at flavors.me/kmdk. She is proud to be called a geek.

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