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Attracting an audience to your website is one thing, but providing them with the best possible experience is another. Website owners, marketers, and copywriters often don’t realise that they exclude lots of visitors or even lose a substantial amount of their audience, because they are not paying attention to web accessibility.
What is web accessibility?
“(Web) Accessibility is the practice of making your websites (or products) usable by as many people as possible.” (source: MDN Web Docs)
I like this explanation, because it does not just focus on people with disabilities. It takes all people into account, regardless of disability. And in the end, that’s what it is all about: to attract as many people to your site as possible and provide them with the best possible user experience.
How do we get information from a webpage?
To understand which aspects are important for accessible websites, it is essential to first discuss the senses that people of all abilities use to gather information from a webpage. There are three of them:
- 1.Sight – to see (e.g. images, text, and video).
- 2.Hearing – to hear (e.g. spoken text, music, and other sounds).
- 3.Touch – to feel (e.g. dots, bars, and vibrations).
If one of these senses is impaired, others can take over. Someone who is deaf may still read text, subtitles, transcripts, and view descriptive images. Someone who is blind may still use a screen reader to hear the text read aloud. Someone who cannot see or hear may still feel the text on a webpage by using a braille display. In order to ensure as many people as possible can use your website, you must provide all of them with the necessary means to do so.
So why is it important to pay attention to web accessibility?
Every obstacle that your visitor comes across when using your website may be a reason to leave your website.
- An animation which can’t be stopped and therefore is very distracting to me? Click away.
- Only being able to use my keyboard to navigate, but by doing so not being able to select an item to put into my online cart? Click away.
- Filling in a form, but don’t know why I can’t submit the form as the error messages are only indicated by colour and I am colourblind? Click away.
These are all things that can be easily prevented. You just need to know where to start, and I’ve got some tips that will help to improve the accessibility of your website right away.
5 ways to improve the accessibility of your website.
Improving accessibility on your website doesn’t just benefit your users, but it can also reward you with plenty of benefits, too. Most importantly, you will expand your potential audience. The math is pretty simple: if more people are able to use your website you’ll grow your potential user base. And that might put you one step ahead of the competition who did not make the effort.
Accessibility touches on many aspects and disciplines and could be somewhat intimidating. It deals with design principles like the use of colours and contrast levels. It can also require some technological knowledge, so the page can be easily navigated by using only a keyboard. But there are also some things you can do with limited to no knowledge about the technical or design aspects of your website. So let’s get started.
1Structure your text by making use of the right headings.
One of the easiest ways to improve the accessibility of your website is to structure your text. You can do so by making use of the right headings and subheadings. Heading levels are numbered from H1 to H6.
The main page title gets the level 1 (H1). This H1 only occurs once per page, and describes what the page is about. This is usually the title at the top of the text. The other headings divide the rest of the content, much like the table of contents of a book. Never ever skip a level, because that makes things more difficult for your site’s visually impaired visitors.
Why does this help? Headings are extremely important for people who use a screen reader. They can call out a list of headings to browse through a page and decide from which point they want to start reading. In such cases, meaningful headings of the right levels are very useful. But if you choose your headings based on visual appeal, rather than structural consistency, it can cause problems for visitors who rely on a screen reader.
Also, headings are the backbone of your content. With well-written headings, all of your visitors get a good idea of the content on a page via “headhunting”. And a bonus: search engines like well-structured headings as well. Win-win!
2Use meaningful link text.
Screen readers can read a list of links out loud. It is not helpful if every link is called Click here. If you add a link to your text, it’s important for your visitors to understand where it leads.
The best way to do so is to ensure that your link text is meaningful. This means that your readers must be able to determine from the link text where the link will take them and what to expect. Here are some examples of unclear link text:
- Click here
- This article
- Read more
- Continue reading
Vague wording can be useless for blind visitors because a screen reader will only read the link text aloud and “Click here” does not help them to understand where the link will lead them to. Plus, it forces your seeing visitors to read the entire sentence before they can decide if they want to follow the link. So, for example (underlined text = link):
- Don’t use: Click here for more information about using meaningful links.
- Do use: Read more information about using meaningful links.
Sometimes creating a good link text requires you to rewrite the sentence. Choose your words carefully. The sentence must be easy to read and the link text clear.
Why does this help? Meaningful link text helps your content to be easier to read as there are fewer interruptions in the flow of the wording, and more people will have a good idea of where a link will lead to. Making sure all link text is meaningful is something you can do quite easily, and it directly helps so many people.
3Use image descriptions (alt text).
Alternative text (alt text) is meant to describe what is on an image, and can be helpful for people with visual impairments who are not able to see what’s on a picture. When an image substantially adds to the content of a page, you should include an alternative text with the image. You can often add an alt text in the image editor in your content management system (CMS). Note: if an image is only decorative and adds no value to the content, you can leave the alt text blank, for example, coloured shapes or patterns in your site’s background.
Define the alt text with short, to-the-point information, and please do not stuff it with keywords for search engines (that’s not helpful for users). The screen reader itself adds the word ”image”, so you don’t have to include that. To help you decide which alt text is the best and most suitable, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published a useful tool: the so-called Alt decision tree.
Why does this help? For people who use screen readers, alt text helps them learn about all content that is on a page, by describing what’s in an image. If an image is only decorative and the alt text is left blank, then the screen reader will skip the image.
4Provide all content as text.
To attract and keep as many visitors as possible on your website, one thing you can do is to include text as part of the different types of content you offer, like images, videos, and audio clips. This is not only important to people with a disability, but it also helps search engines to better understand and index your website. So more text, means better access for visitors and better SEO results. Again: a win-win!
So what can you do?
- Add alternative text (alt text) to images. If you have a CMS, this option should be available when you add an image.
- Provide a full description of what is on an infographic. You can do so below the image or link to a separate page if it is a lot of information.
- Add audio description to a video without text. In this way people who are blind can still experience what is happening in the video.
- Add captioning to a video. Provide words superimposed on your video that are either written or checked by a human. Note: also explain what is happening in a video when it’s not obvious from the spoken word, i.e. peaceful music if a lullaby is playing in the background.
- Add transcription for audio (sound recording). Put the transcript text below the audio track or provide a link to a separate page with the information.
Why does this help? People with visual impairments are able to have the content read out loud by their screen reader, and they can maintain equal access to information with alternative text and written descriptions of infographics. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can still benefit from video and audio content if spoken word and other relevant sounds are translated into written text.
5Use clear language that everyone can understand.
To make sure that your text is understandable to everyone, always aim for the level of a 12-year-old reader. “But wait...” you might think, “My audience can read much better than that!” Then please consider this: even if your readers are experts and are very familiar with the topic you are writing about, they may not be reading under optimal conditions. Maybe your language isn’t the reader’s first language. Your reader may not be well-rested or not be in a quiet environment.
That is why it’s best to offer text that’s easy to read under any conditions. Know that you don’t have to compromise on the content to do so. One way to make sure you use clear language is by making your text coherent: make use of conjunction words that ‘join’ sentences (or words) together (stating e.g. a contradiction, a cause and an effect, or co-ordination). But also, make use of the right headings that describe the content below.
Why does this help? Using accessible language can help readers gain a better understanding of your message despite having some cognitive challenges or distracting environmental conditions. Think of it as casting a wide net to make your site more readable for a large swath of your potential audience.
Are you ready to improve the accessibility of your website?
You can do all of the above quite easily. All it takes is a little time to scan your website and check for the things we’ve gone over here, and you’ll be well on your way to making your website more accessible for your audience.
Of course there is a lot more that you can do. Some things are easily done, such as adjusting the colour contrast of your website for people who are colourblind, while other things take more time. Online courses, like those we offer at A11y Collective, can help you learn more on all aspects of web accessibility, including the basics.
But it all starts with being aware of how web accessibility benefits so many people. So don’t let anything stop you from making an impact and start learning more today!
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