Are you curious about simple ways to make your content universally accessible? Or perhaps you're keen to get a fresh perspective on understanding accessibility? Join us as Lindsey White, an accomplished technical writer, shares her in-depth insights and experiences from her stint managing a department website at Cornell University. We explore the significance of universal design and consider how content can be accessible to all users.
Lindsey sheds light on the nuances of intentional language choices and the application of accessibility best practices. Lindsey shares the intriguing concept of the 'curb cut effect' and how it can revolutionize our understanding of accessibility across fields.
As we round off our discussion, Lindsey and I examine the pros and cons of AI as an assistive technology. We delve into the complexities of balancing AI's benefits with the indispensability of empathy, manual checks, and human input. Lindsey shares resources and courses that can further deepen our understanding of accessibility, including the Google's Tech Writing for Accessibility course. So, if you're eager to make your content more accessible, buckle up for this insightful episode!
Lindsey White is a Technical Writer at Blackbaud. Her interests in user experience and accessibility come in part from her past roles in web-content management, marketing communications, copywriting, and editing. Connect with Lindsey on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/lindseydwhite/.
Resources shared in the episode
Show notes generated by AI and curated by me.
Hello listeners, welcome to the Inside Techcomm with your host, Zohra Mutabana, In season 4, I hope to bring to you different perspectives and interests that intersect with our field. Let's get started. Hello listeners, welcome to another episode of Inside Techcom with Zohra Mutabanna. Today I'm going to pick the brains of Lindsey White, with whom I work, and I reached out to her. I asked her hey, Lindsey, will you be on my show? And she said yes. So here she is, and we're going to be talking all about accessibility and how it impacts and rather works within UX and technical communication. So with that, Lindsey, welcome to my show. Hi, Zohr a, thanks for having me. Of course, it's my pleasure, Lindsey, and with that, tell us all about yourself.Lindsey:
Okay, as Zohra said, I am a technical writer and I have the pleasure of working with Zohra, and I've been at my current role for about two years. Previously, a lot of my prior work experience has been in marketing communications and most recently, one of my major roles was managing the department website, the department I worked at at Cornell University In that role. That's where I really started to develop an interest in accessibility and learning more about that, and I had the experience of being able to attend some trainings and some boot camps as part of a campus wide accessibility effort and then had the responsibility to remediate our departmental website. That's where a lot of my experience and accessibility came from, and now I've brought that into my current role and have begun sharing with my colleagues how we can incorporate accessibility into our work as technical writers.Zohra:
Thanks, Lindsey, for sharing that with us listeners. I do have to share that Lindsey actually made an amazing presentation to us recently at one of our team meetings where she talked about accessibility, and for the longest time I thought I knew a lot about accessibility, and every time I see Lindsey presenting or talking about it, I feel like there's so much more to learn and it's hard to keep up. So this is something I'm sure we all need to do, but, Lindsey, I felt like had the handle on it. You know, Lindsey, I really felt that way. That's the reason why I felt like your knowledge needs to be shared with the larger audience, I think to level set. In your words, what do you think is accessibility in our domain?Lindsey:
I would say something that I ever, as Zohra said, something I've repeated in my presentations and something that I've really taken to heart when learning about accessibility, is that it's truly creating like as close to a universal design as you can. So that's sort of the mindset to get into to really think about who your end users are, as we do in our writing as well, but also think about what is their experience with interacting with this content, regardless of any sort of disability or limitation. Could be something temporary, like maybe you just can't listen to a video because you're on a subway, or something like that Like, is the content that you are trying to interact with? Is that going to be accessible to everybody? So do you have text alternatives available? And just sort of getting into that mindset in any sort of content that you are creating. Yeah, I would say that's what really underscores it for me is just thinking about the global accessibility and making the experience equitable for everybody, regardless of how they interact with your content.Zohra:
Yeah, that's, I think absolutely that's so required, and actually that prompted me to start paying attention to transcripts and I make an attempt to be, you know, as you said, to be universal, to be equitable, and I've started focusing more on transcripts and I use AI tools. Earlier before that, I used to actually go and edit, kind of track what I was, what was being said and fix the grammar, but now the AI tools really do a good job of that. But transcripts is something that I think is a small start from my end to be inclusive.Lindsey:
Yeah, yeah, and I think, as you just said, I mean that's a great example of perhaps how AI is really going to be a great tool for us in this space. I was just sort of like laughing to myself because I've had the experience, just even a couple of years ago, of having to do transcription for podcasts, and even with the tools that were available, there was so much labor still involved to really kind of clean it up, and so that is something I'm hopeful that AI will be able to give us more of a hand there and really simplify that process.Zohra:
Oh, yeah, I think when I started transcribing, probably a little over eight months ago, it was easily taking me over an hour to go and edit because the quality of the transcription wasn't as great. Just in these few short months the quality is so crisp and clear I'm probably spending less than five minutes. That's great, so it definitely is a boon as we kind of start digging into all this AI awesomeness. Well, you said you came from higher ed and I know that higher ed has a better handle on accessibility. Give us a little insight into what was it that you kind of discovered through your boot camps and what did accessibility mean in that domain?Lindsey:
Probably, when I'm now talking about accessibility or presenting about accessibility, I think back to when I was first introduced to it and what my reaction was, sort of what my gut feelings were, and to try to be empathetic to that, because I remember sitting in a room full of people and our facilitator was telling us like, if you think about accessibility, like in terms of a checklist, of course we all have so much on our plates and you may think of it like, okay, great, this is one more thing I need to do now. It's if I didn't already have enough to do. Now I also have to think about accessibility and I totally understand that initial reaction. What was really helpful to me and I've shared this example before too in my presentations is an example that kind of goes around the accessibility community is the curb cut effect. So I think that really helps make it tangible for folks that maybe are newer to the accessibility space. So if you think about curb cuts and sidewalks, of course they were initially designed to assist wheelchair users, but then you think about the benefit, like that it really truly benefits everybody. You think about people pushing strollers or luggage or carts or whatever it is. Of course that curb cut is just making a better experience all around for everyone. So I think that's really for me how to shift that mindset to keep accessibility at priority in your writing and just to really incorporate it in part of your routine. So it's not so much that you are taking on this extra burden or extra space in your mind as you're trying to do your work. It just sort of becomes second nature, like anything else, like any other set of rules or guidelines or anything that you are learning, and I think it will. The more you do it and the more interest you have in it, think the more of a priority and just part of your routine will become.Zohra:
What do you share, Lindsey? What do you think communicators and professionals in the UX space should focus on? You know, if they had to pick a few things and check off on the list of things for accessibility, what are the things that you think we should focus on and prioritize?Lindsey:
I mean some of the more common and I guess like widespread or issues that come up are things we talk about like around alt text, like having useful alt text for your images, making sure that your link text is descriptive and useful. So of course we sort of just saying click here, using that link text as an opportunity to describe the target, describe what exactly the user is going to assist. Especially with screen readers, they'll be reading the links out. So those are like two common issues that arise. Also, thinking about, like the hierarchy of the headings that you're creating that's also very important too. And being mindful that your H1 is followed by H2, followed by H3, and not jumping around just for maybe aesthetic purposes, choosing a different head AM. I think that's something like I and myself and others have mentioned, like oh, I didn't realize that that would actually affect the experience of a screen reader user or someone that is maybe tabbing through the page instead of using a mouse to navigate. So I think, just having that knowledge, that awareness, because you don't know unless someone tells you or that you're attending a training or something. So those are probably some of the most common and I think like ground level things that once you're aware of and you understand how to improve the experience.Zohra:
Yeah. So it sounds like these are pretty. They aren't, as I guess, as involved as one would think. They're pretty basic. This is something that we all can, we all need to focus on and imbibe into our writing practices.Lindsey:
Right, and you know of course there's much more to it. But I think that's helpful too is to not look at accessibility as this like huge, like monstrous thing, like how am I supposed to even get a foothold in here? Just kind of drilling down to like oh okay, like I am inserting images, I am creating alt text anyway. Like, as long as I know what is useful, your alt text, what is required? Does this image, is this image decorative and maybe doesn't require alt text? That sort of thing. Like once you learn it, it just becomes part of your routine.Zohra:
Makes sense Now since you kind of gave us an example of what alt text should be and should not be, maybe it'll help our audience to understand what should be there in the alt text, because that's actually something I struggled with and now, having worked at on our team for over two years, I understand that decorative images may just need to say decorative image and not have an alt text. Can you give us some pointers?Lindsey:
Okay. So what makes good alt text? I mean primarily what the role of the alt text is is to describe what the image is. So, again, you think about that like equitable experience. So whether a user is viewing the image or listening to a description of the image, you want the experience to be as close to the same as possible. And there are some caveats with that. So sometimes you might hear that and think like, oh my gosh, I better do like the best job describing this image in very precise detail and talk about every say it's like a graph of some sort, like, oh, I should describe every point of data and describe what it looks like, and kind of understanding that like that's not really the purpose of alt text, especially when you have an image like that. That's very a graph, or you know something that has a lot of data and a lot of words on it. So you know, the better option there is to sort of. I think of it in terms of if I was looking at this image and I was just trying to tell someone what I was looking at, how would I describe it, you know? So if it is a bar graph, like, maybe I would just say just notes like what's the important point there, Like what is this graph to convey? So if there was like a steep drop off at one point, like that would be the part that is important to this image. It's not describing every single data point. So, and also not including words like image of or photo of, because the screen reader is going to recognize that as an image and you don't want to be repetitive with your text. And if you do have, as I said, as an example, if you've got to graph something that's rather text heavy, a better alternative of that is to really make sure that your supporting text on the page, really puts it into context and explains it in a more detailed way and, as I was saying, you think about making it universal for everybody. So maybe someone's using a screen reader, maybe their link is broken, their page is not loading properly, they have a poor internet connection. If you've got the text on that page that's supplemental and is covering the same material, like that is going to make sure that the graphic is going to be represented in the text, and also you can have the alt text that, as I said, sort of summarizes the image more.Zohra:
Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I mean, that's a great example to its universal in design. But even technical glitches happen with us all the time. So knowing what that image would have to offer is, I may decide okay, I don't want the image to load, I might just turn off images. But having that alt text would give me some indication of what that image would be. But these seem like big things but they're not really when you start thinking about them as a daily best practice.Lindsey:
That's right. And even when it comes to the writing itself, you know a lot of the guidance around accessibility. Sometimes we might think of accessibility in terms of, you know, screen readers, of course, are a great example of that, of how you're trying to make your content useful for screen readers. But then to also think about that people have physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities. Everyone has different experiences with accessing your content. So really trying to think about that universally, and so a lot of these best practices are beneficial to everyone. If the guidance is to, you know, make your writing succinct and clear and not use a lot of, you know, verbose language like that's beneficial to everybody. That's just creating quality content. So yeah, as you said, it does seem. It can seem intimidating at first, but at the heart of it is really just making your content like as efficient and beneficial as possible.Zohra:
In the one thing that you said, not being verbose. My schooling. I'm from India and my education was in British English and for some reason, when we write when we are trained to write in India we have to write with a flourish quote unquote which, by the very definition of it, means verbosity. You know, you use very flowery language and when I transition into technical writing I felt like I was losing a skill. But now it makes sense. It's part of being universal in design and this is something I feel like technical writers underplay about the value that we bring to a business, and I feel this is something to keep in mind that we are trained to write in a very simple language and that is a special skill in itself. I was told by a team member a long time ago that technical writers all they do is focus on grammar and write a few words on paper Only if they knew the thought that goes into writing good content and how it can enable a business. So I definitely want to sort of bring that perspective into this conversation, and accessibility is a very big part of it, which we talk about day in, day out, and amazing people like you bring educators, keep us updated. So it's a team effort and it may seem like it's just all text and a few words here and there, but it's not. We have to start applying those skills to UX or UX writing. Because you don't have the real estate to write long- form content, then how do you start thinking about condensing it and writing in a manner where you are making that content accessible?Lindsey:
Yeah, absolutely, I'm just nodding along. It is a special skill that, and coming from a background war and like marketing communications and having kind of applied those skills in a different way and for different types of audience. And then moving into technical writing and if you don't know what goes into it, to just see a few words like, oh, that seems can't be that hard. But really you have to be so intentional with your language and with your choices, you know, really cutting out anything excessive. It is a skill for sure, for sure.Zohra:
Yeah, absolutely, and I think you said intentional. You have to be so intentional because we want that content to be actionable and meaningful, so it takes a lot of skill to get to that point. As you work in this field, there's a sort of professional maturity that you gain over time and I can speak to it because I've been doing this for so long and a lot of the things that you bring to the table kind of validates the value that how technical communicators contribute to the whole business process. But, moving on, we talked about some amazing examples and I would kind of extend that to also be the best practices. Are there any tools not AI tools, but are there any tools that you would recommend to the listeners that we can kind of start using, incorporating into our day today, that are for free? Probably? Yeah.Lindsey:
Absolutely. Yeah, I mean the first thing, I think, regardless of your familiarity with accessibility, really to dig into the guidelines and see exactly what we're talking about. So that's WCAG, the Web Contact Accessibility Guidelines. That's really the main spell that I want to WCAG Okay.Zohra:
And I will be adding these resources to my show notes for sure.Lindsey:
So yeah, please go ahead. So there's, as we had said before, when you look at that and you look at those guidelines, I mean there is a lot in there. So I think that's a panic. There are checklists that are kind of broken down a little more succinctly. That's a good resource to look at those and just see, like, what exactly we're talking about, what we're talking about accessibility guidelines, and also to understand that there are different levels of accessibility. So WCAG has them categorized by single A, a double A and a triple A and, just from my experience with the organizations I have been with, what we are aiming for is to be compliant with the level A and the double level A guidelines and the triple A being a little more reserved for the kind of specialty websites or maybe like governmental websites or things like that. Not necessarily something that everybody has to do in order to be considered compliant. And then also, an important part of web accessibility is doing audits, and so sometimes new companies or organizations will work with auditing companies to help them identify some problem areas or areas for improvement. But there's also ways that any user can just check their own content. Well, another favorite website of mine that is very supplemental to WCAG is its web aim, so it's W-E-B-A-I-M dot org and that's a good resource to kind of help you interpret the guidelines and understand, like, how to take action on some of those guidelines. And then tool that I have used, both at, like the enterprise level and also just like the personal free accessibility checker level, is called site improves. So that's a great tool and, as I said, they have a free plugin, a browser plugin, that can scan your pages individually and then, if you do have the enterprise version, of course it will look at your site as a whole. But I really like a tool like that because what we'll do is scan your page and identify some areas that might not be considered compliant and specify which guideline is sort of triggered there and how to fix it and how to review it and to make sure that it's yeah, that now it's considered compliant. And then there are other tools out there, you know, to check color contrast, to make sure that that is considered accessible, and other tools for you know that you can use a screen reader on your own, and there are some of them are native, I think, to like Apple products. So you can see what the experience of using a screen reader is like. If you haven't done it, I highly recommend it. Or watching videos of users using screen readers, I think it really puts it in perspective and underscores you how important it is that you incorporate some of these things we've been talking about into your writing. So, yeah, there are a lot of free tools out there, plugins out there, and then also you can be doing manual checks too, so anyone can sort of tab through a page and make sure, or arrow through a page and make sure, that that experience is how you intended it to be. Sometimes I would find that surprising that, like, maybe the hierarchy or the flow is not set up quite the way I thought it was for a user that's interacting with the content using a keyboard or screen reader, and then a lot of software has an accessibility checker integrated into it. I think, with varying levels of success, was certainly worth checking out and being aware of that option is out there. And then I think, kind of flag things for accessibility for you.Zohra:
Yeah, so it was honestly, after I attended your presentation did I go and check out a screen reader and wanted to make sure that when my transcript is being read, that it makes sense, and the one thing that I sometimes missed out was on adding the names of the host and the guest and I would say speaker one, speaker two, speaker one, speaker two. A small miss on my part, but from a screen reader perspective it made me like who is speaker one, who is speaker two? Yeah, and just adding those names made just change the whole experience.Lindsey:
Yeah, absolutely, and that's why I think it is so important for us to do our own checking too, and not just rely on, like well, this audit said this or this website said this, or you know word told me this was not accessible or whatever. It is Like to really experience it for yourself. So, as a sighted user, you have that experience of. If I couldn't listen to this podcast or watch this video for whatever reason and I'm reading the transcript Is it helpful to me for it to only say speaker one, speaker two? That would what I would prefer. Would I like to see the names listed there. So, yeah, it's just. It really gives you that empathy. I think that is actually really important in technical writing. I think that's also really important. Value to hold in our writing is to be empathetic Very true.Zohra:
Yeah, I think that's something that you kind of touched upon earlier too. Coming with an empathetic approach is so called for when we write for universal accessibility. You gave me some great resources to look at and these are things that I think I'm going to start incorporating. I have used SiteImprove, I have used WCAG to some extent, so these are some great tools and, yes, I've scanned my pages and it has given me some good insights into what to look for and it can be overwhelming. So you need to prioritize what it is that you can start off with and then gradually scale over time. You don't have to check off everything, but I think taking small steps towards what you want to achieve and, I think, putting kind of as a best practice for somebody this is a question that I always bring up. There are shops where there are just single solo tech writers and they may struggle with what accessibility might mean to them, and I feel and please correct me if I'm wrong here to make accessibility part of their style sheet design as they're starting to think about what are they going to do to address accessibility, and making it part of their best practice, making it part of their design process, probably could help them in the long run.Lindsey:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean there's multiple parts to this. So you know it's auditing your existing content, identifying those areas where you need to bring it up to to meet the guidelines, but then also going forward, as you said, you're incorporating that into your future work and you're going to want to continue checking in, making sure that your new content is also accessible. But now you'll know you know you've gone back and you've had to add alt tags to a whole bunch of images. So then going forward, you understand I know how to create meaningful alt text for these images and that's just going to be. Every time I add an image now it's going to have excellent alt text. I'm going to keep auditing in the future and just making sure that everything is where it should be, but it's just part of my practice now.Zohra:
Yeah, I think I should mention the cool script that Shaughn wrote for us where, for images that had already been part of the documentation all the legacy content he wrote a cool script that went and fixed a lot of the alt text. If you have coding skills, that's another area where you can contribute to improving your content accessibility, right, mm-hmm? I think there are so many ways again, thinking of how we bring, how we impact the long-term business and how we elevate the value of content. Everything that you're talking about adds to that user experience and makes it more inclusive in design. Yeah, you're actually telling us how to put that into practice. We talk about great design in this awesome user experience with content and working with other stakeholders, but this is where we take ownership and we can actually drive what accessibility can be in content.Lindsey:
Right, yeah, there is a lot that has to happen at more of the template level, or to really have your developers or your web team that it's more of their responsibility to make sure those the colors that are on your website are going to pass a contrast checker. And if you've got logos that are repeated on every page, like is the alt text kind of baked into that sort of thing, but then, as you said, just to recognize that we as writers and communicators also can have an impact, on accessibility and also can take ownership and responsibility for creating accessible content.Zohra:
AI is relatively a new thing in our ecosystem that we can tap into. What are your thoughts on AI?Lindsey:
So one of my hopes really for AI is I would like to see it be used to enhance the native accessibility checker tools in a lot of software, with varying degrees of succes Some are quite good, some are very frustrating and I just think there is a lot of potential there to really leverage AI in a way that, as you're creating content, it's going to be able to really help you, along with your accessibility, like right there in the moment of creation, to know right away, as I said, whether your heading structure and your hierarchy makes sense for the flow of your page, the flow of information. Are you able to navigate through tabs and pages and things like that the way that you would expect? So I would really like to see and I'm excited to see the growth in that space that when you are creating, the tool you are using has an excellent accessibility checker just baked into it and it's calling out potential issues for you right there in the moment and it's helping you solve it. I think that is really what I would like to see in the future.Zohra:
Cool. Are there potential downsides or challenges to using AI in your opinion? I know it's still relatively new to all of us, but just as a cautionary advice that we should keep in mind.Lindsey:
As you say, AI is relatively new. But, even looking at it in terms of that, there are accessibility checkers, there are technological tools already that we can use, but you still need to have, and never to just rely on, one source, I guess, which would be my caution, and to still remember that doing a manual check yourself and really experiencing yourself and using those empathetic skills and putting yourself in the place of your users, that is something I think that human element is always going to be so important. Yeah, overall, I would just caution not to rely on just one source and if you plug something into like chatGPT, you're like great, I have this, I'm just going to plop this in. Well, you may be able to improve upon it, you may be able to kind of use that as a springboard to make something better. I would say just not to kind of rely on that as your only source of content or source of truth.Zohra:
I'm so glad you gave us a more holistic view of how to approach using AI tools. I really love that. It's like anything else you start with ideation. You're using AI as a starting point, but not as the end point of your journey. It can assist you, so just I think from what you're saying, it's use it as an assistive technology. Absolutely, Lindsey. Are there any good courses or places that you can use to educate yourself on accessibility?Lindsey:
Yeah, I mean, I think a great place to start is LinkedIn. You know, there's great content available. There are great courses available. Are those for free? Everybody likes things for free. You know what? I'm not totally sure if they are available for free for everyone. I'm not sure.Zohra:
But that could be resource to begin with.Lindsey:
Yeah, and if you yeah, if you kind of access them, highly recommend it. I've also. Google has a Tech Writing for Accessibility course. Awesome, and so I attended that. And then they also make their training materials available for facilitator. So that's what I did and then brought it to my company and my colleagues and and shared, you know, my experience going through remediation, an audit and remediation process and then also supplementing that with Google's Tech Writing for Accessibility presentation. Yeah, I think those are. Those are great places to start. And then the websites I mentioned earlier, like the going right to the WCAG site and web aim. Those are great places to learn and they have links to different resources as well.Zohra:
Yeah, those are, I think I would say, pretty Powerhouses of resources for anybody looking to start. But I'm so glad you talked about Google for tech writing, because that's another one that I kind of started as well recently and it has been helpful to me personally. So Thanks for that recommendation, Lindsey. Yeah, we have covered a pretty good amount of ground here. Is there anything that you would like to add? You've given us some amazing insights into what accessibility is. What are the resources, how does one approach it? What are some best practices? You've given us a list of resources that we can start off with, and Is there anything else that you'd like to add?Lindsey:
Yeah, I would just say, as you're taking this on, like whether you are like a one-person shop or if you are on team, it's just to know that there are a lot of resources out there. So you're you're just not alone in this effort and it's obviously like at the forefront of a lot of people's minds and so a lot of people are undertaking this. A lot of people are going to be, you know, in the same situation that you are. And If you do have a team of writers as you mentioned, Zohra, like we have Shaughn on our team, who has more experience with coding was able to write these scripts for us to help automate some of the all-text process. So look for those opportunities to collaborate and to kind of draw on other people's strengths. I've got some experience with going through the accessibility remediation process, so I'm happy to share that with my team. And then I'm learning from others and getting others interested and, you know, everyone's kind of exploring and sharing their knowledge. That would just be my tip. And, you know, even if you are a team of one, there are obviously like a lot of resources out there on the web and a lot of groups and chat groups and things like that that you can certainly access and seek out and find ways to collaborate and share ideas.Zohra:
Awesome. Thank you so much, Lindsey, for taking the time on a Sunday morning to share your experience and your insights with us. This has been an enlightening conversation for me personally, and I get to catch up one-on-one with you.Lindsey:
Yeah, thank you, Zohra . It's so nice to talk to you too. Thanks for having me.Zohra:
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