Writing Clearer Content That Benefits Accessibility Expands Your Audience

June 22, 2021

To cut through the noise, web content needs to be informative and interesting. That’s not always easy, but writing more accessible content has numerous benefits, and a few basic considerations can make a difference. Whether you’re writing a blog, a call-to-action page, or anything else, planning for accessibility will help.

Below are several ways to optimize content for all audiences, along with some considerations that will keep content accessible for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies. These techniques will allow you to write useful, engaging pages — and help your site reach a larger audience.

Keep language simple and use short sentences

Wherever possible use simple language with basic terminology. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provides some guidance here. Section 3.1.5 notes:

When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles, supplemental content, or a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available.

Ironically, that sentence is fairly complex, but the takeaway is clear. Complex writing isn’t always appropriate, and it can be exhausting for some users. Conditions like dyslexia, short-term memory issues, and vision disabilities will affect how people engage with your content, and long paragraphs of text might deliver a bad experience.

Regardless of their abilities, most audiences appreciate information that’s presented clearly and concisely. If you need to use words that aren’t in a typical user’s vocabulary, define those terms clearly.

Consider adding a glossary if your content addresses complex topics. For example, insurance companies often use glossaries to define common terms that appear throughout their written materials.

Make your web content "scannable"

Most people scan across content looking for key points. If they’re not able to find the information they want, they probably won’t dive much deeper; one early Nielsen Norman Group study found that 79 percent of test users scanned every page they came across, while only 16 percent read word-by-word.

That’s also true for people who use assistive technologies. A person using a screen reader might jump around your page looking for important information such as headings, bulleted lists, and links. Using these elements effectively will help them navigate in a natural way. Those same elements can also make the page more useful for other readers, and a scannable page layout can be helpful for search engine optimization (SEO).

Here are a few tips for improving page layout:

  • Use ordered and unordered lists to break up longer content. Lists (like this one) can make information more manageable for readers.
  • Make sure you use the correct type of list with proper HTML. Don’t just indent points to indicate a list; use an unordered list for bullet points, or use an ordered list to present points in sequence.
  • Use descriptive headings to organize ideas. Headings help assistive tools work properly, and they’re useful for breaking up a long piece with several different ideas.
  • Use headings in order. Don’t skip heading levels (for example, using an H3 tag immediately after an H1 tag). Read Why Headings Aren’t Simply Style Elements for more guidance.
  • Keep page layout consistent. Consistency is important to accessibility, so make sure your content doesn’t deviate much from your established layout.

Finally, give your readers plenty of ways to understand your content. Provide users with options. Some may appreciate images, illustrations, or audio/visual presentations that provide clarification. Other users won’t be able to access these types of materials as easily — but your site can still use these tools effectively by providing text alternatives. Read 8 Common Image Alt Text Mistakes to Stop Making for help writing effective alt text.

Review and test your content and look for accessibility opportunities

Before publishing, look at a preview of the page. Ask questions: Does the content seem approachable? Is information presented in short, readable sections, or will it seem intimidating to readers? Could you make your content more useful by adding headings, images, lists, video, or audio?

Automated writing tools can provide additional guidance, but don’t rely on them exclusively. Software can assess the reading level of your content and help you find grammar errors, but no automated tool works perfectly. When possible, ask several other people to review your content before publication. You can also gain insights by asking real-world users for their feedback.

Remember, an accessible website benefits everyone, not just users with disabilities. Simple, well-formatted content also appeals to search engines, so if your site is struggling to develop an SEO strategy, reader-friendly content will help. Proper formatting and layout can encourage users to take action.

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