A number of challenges exist to including writing quality as part of accessibility. Despite this, the accessibility of the content itself is critical to creating a successful end-to-end experience for users. The goal of this post is to acknowledge the challenges and begin to shift the conversation.
I have noticed that accessibility experts, myself included, often sidestep writing quality when we discuss accessibility and usability. A few AAA WCAG techniques touch on content (2.4.10 Section Headings and 3.1.5 Reading Level come to mind) but the majority of accessibility standards focus on the method for delivering content rather than the content itself. We also do not often refer to tools for checking writing quality such as spelling and grammar checkers as accessibility evaluation tools. We place the entire topic within the domain of English (or other language) teachers and editors. But I have come to believe the quality and approach to writing is a critical part of both accessible and usable design practices. Approaches for well written content need to be included in discussions and recommendations even if we leave the standard creation and tool development to other disciplines.
I am focusing the rest of this post on accessibility to keep it shorter, but the same points apply within the usability field as well, and even to the larger UX community as a whole. I would argue that confusing, poorly written content does not lead to a delightful experience.
Challenges to Including Writing Quality in Accessibility
A number of good reasons exist to leave writing quality to separate disciplines outside of accessibility.
Techniques for creating accessible content overlap with the domains of writing and plain language, even more so than most accessibility techniques overlap with coding and design.
When we start digging into how to create accessible content, discussion moves to word choice, paragraph and sentence structure, verb tense, tone, chunking content, and other editorial terms. The conversation stops sounding like accessibility and starts sounding like something else. For me, the resulting conversation sounds a lot like my 9th grade English class and it does not sound easily testable or reproducible.
Fatigue: I often think of accessibility (and usability) as peeling an onion. We start with the outer layer. For digital content this is the computer, tablet, kiosk or other device. Is it accessible? Does it have the necessary controls? Can the controls, inputs and outputs work with standard assistive technology?
Then we dive into the operating platform. Does it have accessibility settings? Does it include assistive technology or at least support it? What about keyboard navigation? Are customizable color schemes and magnification available?
Next comes the application or coding layers. These include the questions for the platform along with additional questions about content presentation, adaptability, and alternatives. Is the content coded to be responsive and adaptable? Are text alternatives to non-text content available? When styles are removed, does the organization remain meaningful?
At the core, is the content itself, but by the time we get there individuals and organizations tackling accessibility, especially for the first time, are exhausted. As a result, I believe it is often easier to relegate content to someone else’s domain and responsibility.
Expertise: Do accessibility engineers consider plain, high quality writing to be a skill set they have or want to develop? Accessibility practitioners already need expertise in regulations, coding, design, usability, and related areas. Quality writing and the ability to assess and correct it, is yet another skill set to develop, hire, and apply. Even as I write this post, I am wondering how many times I will rewrite it in an attempt to avoid hypocrisy.
Preconceptions: There seems to be a preconception that accessible content means writing for individuals with a low reading comprehension level. In WCAG, Success Criterion 3.1.5 Reading Level calls out the lower secondary education level as a goal. As a result, I believe technical writers and domain specific content creators such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers do not understand the relevance to their work.
But consider this:
- Would you prefer read through the license agreement for a website in legal language or in a plain language alternative with short, well written sentences that explain what you are agreeing to?
- Would you prefer a wall of text about medical treatment or concise bullets of the most relevant content?
- Have you ever found it easier to not have to read a double negative? Or, in other words, have you ever struggled with double negatives?
Highly technical and domain specific writing benefits from the techniques used to make content more accessible.
Why does quality writing matter to accessibility and usability? Because no matter how accessible the equipment, platform, application and coding is – if the reader cannot understand the content — the rest of the work is useless for that user.
We need to consider writing quality as part of creating an accessible and usable experience. That may not be incorporating it in standards but it should certainly be included in the guidance accessibility and UX related organizations provide.