Writing towards an accessible user experience

Abigael Donahue
Jan 21, 2020 · 5 min read
Open books on a flat surface
Open books on a flat surface
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Have you ever felt left out? Maybe you weren’t invited to a party. Or maybe you were the last person picked for a team.

We can all probably agree: Being left out feels awful.

You wouldn’t want to make someone else feel like that, would you? Of course not! But what if I told you that lots of people are excluded from using software products every day?

Luckily, we can fix this. That’s why accessibility is so important.

Quite a few people mistakenly believe that accessibility only applies to product design features like colors and sound. That’s actually not true. Everyone should be thinking about accessibility—especially UX writers.

What it all means

“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can equally perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with websites and tools.”

But I’ve always believed accessibility extends even further. So here’s my definition: Accessibility is a mindset focused on creating an equitable experience for people of all abilities.

Let’s unpack that real quick.

Equitable: Maybe you’re thinking, Why not equal? That’s a valid question. While “equal” means “the same,” “equitable” means “fair.” Giving users the same (equal) product doesn’t always yield the same (equal) experience.

Imagine this: You share a color-coded reporting web page with two users. One user is colorblind, and the other user is not. The latter may benefit tremendously by the color-coded data. But the former would have to work much harder to make sense of it all — they don’t benefit from all the colors. So the same product was provided, but the experiences were much different.

All abilities: Again, maybe you’re thinking, Why not disabilities? Plain and simple: Accessibility makes things easier for everyone.

For example, people with or without cognitive disabilities can more easily comprehend simple language and familiar words. And people with or without hearing impairments can benefit from captions on online videos. (Fun fact: 80% of people who use captions do not have any hearing impairments.)

What does this have to do with UX writing?

UX writing helps users in so many ways. In the interest of brevity, let’s just touch upon a few:

  • Reassurance: Nobody wants to enter their phone number or email address without in-app copy (aka, microcopy) confirming that their privacy won’t be compromised. Actually, this has been studied. People expect some reassuring microcopy in these situations.
  • Guidance: Microcopy can tell people what to do in a product and where they should go next. This way, users (especially new users) can more easily navigate the product and even discover some new tools.
  • Human connection: A digital product isn’t a person — but that doesn’t mean you can’t use microcopy to remind people that a human is behind all the clicks, scrolls, and buttons. After all, software is a human creation. Nick Babich from Shopify says it best: “Words have a capacity to make people feel something.”

We can go on and on, but let’s stop here and ask ourselves: Doesn’t everyone — regardless of ability — deserve to experience all the benefits of UX writing?

That’s a solid YES from me.

Get started with accessible UX writing

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has a lot of information about accessible written content. For now, let’s go over a few basic quick tips. Think of this as a start to your own personal “Accessibility cheat sheet.”

Write in plain language: Plain language is a great way to solve for a variety of literacy levels and reading abilities. Stick with simple words — no jargon, no bizspeak. Think twice before using idioms and figures of speech, too. They don’t make sense in all languages, cultures, or age groups.

When you’re writing, consider how you’d talk with a friend or a neighbor. Chances are, you wouldn’t use super fancy terminology. You’d instead use familiar words and sound like a person. So do just that in your writing: Sound like a person.

Use the active voice: The active voice is when the subject of the sentence performs the action. The passive voice is when the subject of the sentence receives the action. For example:

  • Passive voice: An article about accessibility was published by Abigael.
  • Active voice: Abigael published an article about accessibility.

See the difference? The active voice is often clearer and more concise. That helps all users comprehend the copy.

But this doesn’t mean you should always use the active voice. You’ll probably use the active voice most of the time, but you might find yourself using the passive voice to avoid assigning blame to the user. Imagine a user seeing “You entered the wrong password” on their login screen. That sounds harsh!

Use fewer words and shorter sentences: Long sentences with lots of words sound clunky and looks confusing. This isn’t ideal for anyone, especially for users with reading disabilities. Keep sentences short, and cut out words that aren’t needed.

Just be careful not to sacrifice valuable information for the user. You want to strike that perfect balance between brevity and clarity. Keep the user in mind, and focus on delivering the information they need first. Then you can think about cutting out the excess.

Mind your links: Sometimes you might want to link to other sources in your microcopy, like a technical document. When you do, format your link as a contextual, descriptive hyperlink (avoid using “click here”). This way, people using screen readers can easily scan the links and determine which ones they want to visit.

Also, avoid using raw links, where the link is written out in full. Screen readers will read every character in the URL aloud. No one wants to listen to that — annoying!

Conduct user testing: Don’t forget to test your microcopy with diverse groups of users. If the copy isn’t working for users, it’s time for editing.

Working towards a more accessible future

Don’t think of accessibility as a “nice to have” or as an “accommodation.” Instead, adopt accessibility as a mindset, and examine your work through the lens of all users (not just the ones like you). Make your creations work for as many people as possible. Because all humans deserve access to the wonders of technology.

If you’d like to share some of your own UX knowledge, please get in touch. We’d love to feature an article by you on PatternFly’s Medium publication.

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