Writing accessible web page content


Purpose of the page

The primary purpose of most pages in your web site is to communicate a message. It is important to bear in mind the following points when writing your text.

  • What is the aim of the page?
  • What you want to say?
  • Whom do you want to say it to?

Without clear objectives it is very hard to create an effective page that holds the readers interest and delivers your message in a way that the user understands.

If you are designing a web site for a client it is vital that you establish the above criteria at the beginning of the project. You should also obtain some samples of the text to be used so that, if need be, you can start any required education process.

Language style

Any web site needs clear, concise, readable content. Attention spans are short on the web, so a newspaper style is most appropriate - especially on the top level pages where you need to capture the visitor's attention. For most pages this means having headlines at the top, followed by more information. It means putting the conclusion first and then supporting it. It means putting things in bite-sized chunks.

Once you've got the reader's attention and they want to know more you can lead them to more detail on this, or other pages. The key thing is getting the visitor interested enough to want to read the detail. This is particularly important for disabled people who have enough problems using the technology of the web without having to struggle to understand your content.

Be positive

In most cases a visitor arrives at your site because they have used a search engine and are searching for a product or service like yours. Their main question is not "do I buy?" but "who do I buy from?" They need objective information, like your product's features and pricing. Compare these two examples:

Example 1

WidgetSearch helps businesses to prosper in today's knowledge economy by giving employees timely access to the data they need.

Widget Search frees up time for end-users, IT managers, and senior managers.

Raise productivity! Our info-centric environment helps employees stay informed and contribute to your goals.

Example 2

WidgetSearch is an electronic document management system that people can use to:

  • search documents by keyword or phrase
  • search documents by date, or via custom searches in special fields like title, location, and author
  • find information even if the keywords are misspelled

Own WidgetSearch for the affordable price of $599. Optional support is available at $100 per year (includes upgrades).

The first example is full of benefits-talk, but leaves the reader with no clear idea what the product will actually do, or how much it costs. After reading this example, the user cannot answer the question "will this product do what I want?". By contrast, the second example concentrates on features and gives the reader a very specific idea of the capabilities of the product. The reader can answer the questions "will this product do what I want?" and "how much does it cost?" The use of clear, objective facts makes the content easy to understand and creates credibility in the mind of the reader.

The key to effective communication is to understand your visitors with the aim of providing them with the information they want in the clearest possible format.

Be concise

Remember that the web is a very different medium to traditional paper. If you do "cut & paste" text from a printed document to a web-page you will almost certainly need to cut it down by 75% if you want a user to read it "on-line".

There is a temptation for some content authors to use the web to demonstrate their ability to construct complex sentences, or to manipulate the English language. This is a particular temptation for people seeking to impress a supervisor, or their colleagues. However the Internet is a global medium and you could expect a large number of your visitors to have English as their second (or third) language. A skillful author will recognise this and construct documents using only language suitable for the widest audience possible. This does not mean "dumbing down" your content, but it does mean making sure that you have a clear, logical thread through the content. It means presenting your message in sufficiently short sentences that an expert in your subject can skim read the content whilst a non-expert can take the time to digest and understand each point as it is presented.

At the other extreme there is a temptation to get published as soon as possible without properly checking that the grammar and spelling are correct. Blind users may find your content impossible to understand if it is not spelt correctly. Screen readers are "dumb robots" that convert your text into audio, they cannot guess what the author meant to write. It only takes a few moments to run a spell checker over your text.

Readability Testing

A handy tool for checking (but not proving!) the readability of your text is to subject it to an automated tool such as a "Gunning-Fogg" test. These are reading algorithms developed in America to gauge the suitability of books for certain grades of student. These are automated tests that predict the potential readability by looking at the length of sentences and the number of syllables in each word. A typical tool for checking the readability of a web site is available from JuicyStudio at http://juicystudio.com/services/readability.php. If you just want to check a block of text you can use a service such as that provided by Online-Utilities at http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp. Exactly which level of readability you need to aim for will depend upon your target audience.

Checking your style

A simple way to check that your writing style is suitable is to read the text out aloud to someone else and see if they can explain the content back to you easily. Do this after you have checked the spelling to pick up things that may have been missed by the spell checker, such as "there" instead of "their".

It can be quite hard to write clear and concise text, so if you have made the effort (or need to justify it to your boss) consider registering for the Internet Crystal Mark  It can be quite expensive unless your organisation is already registered, but it is certainly worth following their guidelines.

Length of your pages

There is a school of thought that suggests that pages should be no longer than will fit into one screen view (i.e. not extend beyond the bottom of the screen, sometimes called the "fold"). However there is no hard evidence that people prefer jumping from page to page rather than scrolling down a single page. For users of assistive software one long page is easier to handle than a series of short pages as they don't have to keep "skipping" navigation links etc at the top of every new page.

If you have a long Web page that you want people to scroll through, you need to make sure you avoid scroll blockers. These are visual elements of your Web page that imply that the page content is over. These include elements like:

  • horizontal lines
  • lines of text links
  • short, wide graphics such as adverts that go across the page
  • navigation icons or social media links
  • anything that acts as a horizontal line across the entire width of the content area can act as a scroll block.

The optimal length for a page really depends upon your intended audience and the type of material that you are presenting. A useful guide might be, if your page requires more than two A4 pages when sent to a printer it is probably getting too long. This page that you are reading now is probably at the limit of acceptable length - but you are near the end!

Using images to support your text

Pages that only contain textual content can be hard to comprehend, particularly for people with poor reading skills, or whose first language is not English. Wherever possible you should make use of the potential for the web to include supporting images. We shall look at how to do this in lesson 7, but for now, whilst you are composing your content, you should also be thinking about what images you might be able to use to make it easier for sighted users to understand your content.

Presenting large or complex information

Sometimes you will want to supply information in more detail than the above guidelines allow. For example you may want to present a long report, a brochure or a technical manual. These sorts of document may not be easy to read or understand using a computer screen. The solution could be to provide a printable version as a separate file in a non-html format such as PDF so that the visitor can download and read at leisure. You should still provide a summary of the document in HTML as part of your web site so that visitors can decide if they want to download the full document. More information on creating and providing PDF files etc. are given in a later lesson, for the moment you should concentrate on letting your visitor know that the information contained in the document exists and is available.