We get a lot of our information and services online these days. That means people who can’t access websites and mobile apps are excluded from a wide range of daily activities.
The EU Web Accessibility Directive requires that the websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies are accessible. According to the European Commission, ‘web accessibility allows everyone, including people with disabilities, to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the internet’.
Some of the challenges to online accessibility are technical. For example, sites should use design and technology to ensure people who are visually challenged can easily search, read and shop online. But some of the challenges to accessibility are about language and how we convey information. People who can’t understand online information or instructions will have difficulty accessing public services or carrying out essential tasks.
Although the directive focuses on the needs of people with disabilities and older people, we all benefit when websites and apps are easy to use. Creating online content that uses plain accessible language can help a wide audience to read, understand and use your information.
Ten ways to use plain English for online accessibility
- Write for the users; not for your organisation. The website may be your ‘shop window’ but the thought in most users’ minds is ‘What’s in it for me?’ You need to identify your target audiences, analyse what they want from your site – and make sure it meets their needs. For instance, do you think many users are interested in your mission statement? If not, why put it on your homepage?
- Write less. Give users only the information they want, need and can use. For instance, don’t add background details unless they need it (and don’t clog up key pages with information that isn’t of wide interest; that’s what links are for).
- Write shorter. Avoid formal wordy expressions that might be acceptable in reports but are not web friendly. Ensure every word tells people something new or helps them to understand something better. Keep sentences to an average of 15 words.
- Write simpler. Use everyday English, avoid jargon where possible, and explain any legal or financial terms that are unavoidable. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms or write them out in full the first time you use them on each page.
- Write stronger. Use the active voice and address users as ‘you’. For example, instead of writing ‘The licence will be forwarded following receipt of the application form’, prefer ‘We will send you the licence after we receive the application form’.
- Write strong headings and subheads. Headings and subheads should be short, clear, accurate and informative. Aim to use key words where possible (these are words that users would put into a search box to find that page).
- Frontload messages. In the first few lines, every single page must clearly say what it does, or what users will find there. In every section, start with the most important information for your target audiences.
- Write in chunks. Long pieces of text can be overwhelming. Using subheads every few paragraphs encourages users to continue reading. Keep paragraphs to a maximum of 5 lines.
- Use links wisely. Analyse how users move around your site and create effective links on every page. Too many links can be distracting; too few links may prevent users from navigating easily.
- Help users to access content. Highlight key points and attract users’ attention with subheads (using key words), images (with alt tags), bullet-point or numbered lists, tables, key words in bold, and links.
Sarah Marriott is a highly experienced trainer and former journalist who specializes in delivering writing skills courses for the public and private sectors. Sarah has worked as a feature writer and sub-editor in The Irish Times and has been involved in training Irish Times editorial staff. She is a former lecturer on the MA in Journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of ‘Common Errors in Written English’.
Sarah will deliver training on