Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!

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Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Open textbooks and the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (webinar)

In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.

Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)

In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.

Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.

BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:

  • First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
  • Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
  • Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.

Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.

Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)

Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.

Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.

The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.

Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)

BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.

Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.

The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.

It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.

The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.

Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”

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This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.

Indi Young—Practical empathy: For collaboration and creativity in your work (webinar)

Empathy for your end users can help you create and design something that truly suits their needs, and it’s the basis of usability design and plain language writing. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is an example of applying empathy, but UX consultant Indi Young, author of Practical Empathy, says that you first have to develop empathy, and she led a UserTesting.com webinar to show us how.

Empathy, said Young, is usually associated with emotion: it makes you think about sensitivity and warmth or about sympathy and understanding a person’s perspective, sometimes so that you can excuse their behaviours or forgive their actions. As it turns out, that definition describes empathy rather poorly. Dr. Brené Brown created a short animation to explain the differences between sympathy and empathy.

True emotional empathy, Young explained, is when another person’s emotion infects you. “It strikes like lightning,” she said, and “it’s how movies and books work”—you’re struck with the same emotions as the characters. This kind of emotional empathy can be incredibly powerful, but you can’t force it or will it to happen. In our work, we need something more reliable.

Enter cognitive empathy, which can include emotions but focuses on understanding another person’s thinking and reactions. In creative work, we often end up concentrating too much on ideas and neglect the people. By listening to people and deepening our understanding of them, we can develop and apply ideas that support their patterns. This listen » deepen » apply process is iterative.

How is empathy important in our work? Empathy has a lot of uses, said Young, and one she saw a lot was using it to persuade or manipulate, which could be well intentioned but might also problematic. She’d rather focus on using empathy to support the intents and purposes of others—to collaborate and create. “Others” is purposely vague here—it can refer to people in your organization or external to it.

To truly collaborate with someone, you have to listen to them, one on one. “When someone realizes you are really listening to them and you don’t have an ulterior motive, they really open up.” These listening sessions allow you to generate respect for another person’s perspectives and can be the basis for creativity. When a user issues a request, ask about the thinking behind it. Knowing the motivation behind a request might allow you to come up with an even better idea to support your users. You can’t establish empathy based only on a user’s opinions or preferences.

In a listening session, be neutral and let go of any judgments; you can’t properly support someone you’re judging. Purposeful listening can also let you discover what you’re missing—what you don’t know you don’t know. The intent of a listening session isn’t to solve any problems—don’t go into a session with an agenda or a set list of questions, and don’t use the session as a forum to show others how much you know. Become aware of your assumptions and don’t be afraid to ask about them.

Let the other person set boundaries of what to talk about. Don’t bring something up if they don’t bring it up. If they’re not comfortable talking, excuse them. Don’t set a time limit or watch the clock. Finally, don’t take notes. “The act of writing things down in a notebook takes up so much of your brain that you can’t listen as well,” said Young.

What you’re trying to uncover in the listening sessions is the person’s reasoning, intent, and guiding principles. What passes through their mind as they move toward their intent? Instead of asking “How do you go about X?” ask “What went through your mind as you X?”

These guidelines seem simple, said Young, but mastering listening skills takes a lot of practice. Once people start opening up and you see how your ideas can better serve their needs, you’ll see how powerful developing cognitive empathy can be.

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Indi Young’s webinar will be available on UserTesting.com in a couple of weeks.

Craig Morrison—10 fixes for improving your product’s UX (webinar)

UserTesting.com hosted a free seminar featuring usability consultant Craig Morrison of Usability Hour. Morrison began as a web designer, focusing on visual design, but he soon discovered that aesthetics alone aren’t enough to ensure a good user experience. Freelancers often get into the habit of satisfying only their clients’ demands and, once they finish one project, they move on to the next, which means that they don’t get a chance to refine user experience. But positive user experiences translate into user recommendations and business growth, so it’s a good idea to help clients see the importance of placing user needs ahead of their own.

Morrison outlined ten of the most common UX mistakes and how to fix them:

1. Focusing on impressive design instead of usable architecture

It’s tempting to want to make a site that will wow people with its visuals, but aesthetics alone don’t provide value. Morrison offered Craigslist as an example of how a plain-looking site can be popular because it has great functionality. He recommends that you consult a UX consultant first to plan a usable content structure, then focus on visual design.

2. Not removing unvalidated features

If your site has features that nobody is using, all it’s doing is cluttering up the site and making it harder for users to find what they really want from you.

3. Listening to user ideas

This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to your users at all; listening to their problems is valuable, but often what users suggest as solutions wouldn’t work well. Morrison suggests that you start user testing and watch how people use the product. Seeing where they falter will highlight what you need to work on.

Polling your audience is also a good way to get feedback, particularly for new features, but phrase your questions carefully. You’re looking more for users’ motivations for using a particular feature, as opposed to their opinions about which option they’d prefer.

4. Forcing people to sign up without offering any value

Your landing page can’t be just a logo and a sign-up form. People aren’t willing to exchange their information for nothing. Instead, show why your product is valuable before they sign up. This also goes for credit card numbers: asking for that information during a free trial will turn people off before they’ve even tried your product.

5. Taking user feedback personally

If your dismiss negative feedback by saying “they just don’t get it” or “users are dumb,” you’re sabotaging your business. Complaints are opportunities to improve UX.

6. Poorly designed search function

Half of web users are search oriented and won’t browse. Morrison admits that this bit of advice may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but “follow proper guidelines for designing a usable search function.” There are best practices out there, and he’s written about some of them on his blog.

7. Not optimizing for mobile

“Mobile traffic on the web is 20% and rising,” said Morrison, and you’re driving that traffic away if your site isn’t optimized. People aren’t going to voluntarily spend the time to zoom and navigate through a website meant for larger screens. Invest time and money into a simple mobile site. Morrison says that whatever solution you choose is up to you, but he’s found CSS media queries to be a simple way to ensure your content displays how you want it to, and he prefers it over responsive design.

8. Not offering users help

Despite your best efforts to designing a user-friendly site, inevitably some people will get lost or confused and then won’t come back, out of frustration. Morrison suggests buttressing good content architecture with a searchable wiki and an FAQ page. How-to videos are great, as is live support, if you can offer it.

9. No emotional connection between brand and users

People who feel emotionally connected to your brand will have a better experience. If your users aren’t familiar and comfortable with your brand, they’ll be quick to dislike you for even the smallest flaws. Focus on building your brand early, and get buy-in from all of your employees. For example, if part of what you offer is excellent customer service, ensure that all of your employees live up to that expectation.

10. Not including user onboarding

A user’s first impression is key, and if they get frustrated with using your product, they’ll quit and never come back. You’ve sunk a lot of effort into attracting a new user but you’ll lose it all by not being able to activate them into a long-term user. User onboarding is a way of teaching users how to use your product while demonstrating its value.

At the same time, Morrison recognizes that not everybody loves onboarding. Always offer users the ability to skip it if they’re confident in using your product. At the same time, make sure they can go back whenever they want to do the onboarding if they need to brush up.

According to Morrison, real business growth through UX comes from

  1. getting traffic to the landing page
  2. converting that traffic
  3. activating new users to become long-lasting users

Morrison will be offering an online course through his website to teach people how to meet those goals using great UX. He’s also written an ebook, 5-minute UX Quick Fixes, available free on his site. The webinar I attended will be posted in a couple of weeks at UserTesting.com.

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I liked that although Morrison’s advice is obviously more geared toward websites or apps, a lot of it applies to other kinds of documents as well. I saw the following parallel mistakes for plain language documents (numbering corresponds to list above):

1. Focusing on aesthetics over functionality. Aesthetic design is important, but usability is paramount: do your choices regarding type, graphics, headings, and white space make the document easier to read and understand?

2. Including too much “nice to know” information. In most plain language documents, you should give readers what they need to know.

3. Listening to users? This point of Morrison’s gave me pause, but his advice of paying attention to the users’ problems rather than their suggested solutions makes sense. For instance, users that consistently fill in a part of a form wrong may not pinpoint poor layout as the reason, but a plain language expert might.

5. Taking user feedback personally. This problem probably applies to the client more than the plain language writer or editor, but the editor may have to go to bat for a user and convince a reluctant client that you have to make certain changes.

6. Poorly designed search function. A good search function is a must-have for websites and apps. The print analogue is an excellent table of contents, descriptive and logical headings and subheadings, and a thorough index.

Have I’ve missed other parallels? Let me know in the comments.

Senior editors’ unconference (EAC conference 2014)

What better way for senior editors to learn than by talking to other senior editors?

At the EAC conference, I led the senior editors’ unconference session, which was split into two parts. At lunchtime on Saturday, people were invited to come pitch topics for discussion. I wrote them on a flip chart and gave all participants three sticky dots to vote for their favourite topics. (And if we filled the hour with salacious editorial gossip, I figured that would be fine, too.)

After I tallied the votes, the list of topics was as follows:

  1. Marketing
  2. Setting rates
  3. Dealing with a stagnant client base
  4. Workflow best practices; user testing for workflows
  5. Mentorship—in both directions
  6. Usability testing
  7. Achieving buy-in with style guides
  8. Transitioning from print to digital
  9. Finding new professional development opportunities
  10. Getting out of being typecast
  11. SharePoint do’s & don’ts
  12. Working with international clients
  13. Working with subject experts
  14. File management and archiving

“Sr ask same as n00bs??” wondered Adrienne Montgomerie on Twitter. The top topics—marketing, rates—were the same ones that novice editors have to grapple with, but I was determined that this unconference session would unearth new ideas, not just the same old advice.

Everyone was welcome at the Sunday session; you didn’t have to be at the topic-pitching session to participate. The unconference was scheduled for the last time slot of the concurrent sessions, which worked well because people could bring ideas that other sessions they attended hadn’t covered.

Here’s a run-down of what we discussed. (I’ve eliminated the names here because I never got express permission to quote anyone, and some of what we discussed could be considered sensitive or controversial. If you’d like credit, though, by all means let me know.)

Marketing

Because marketing (#1), setting rates (#2), revitalizing your client base (#3), and getting out of being typecast (#10) are very much related, I concatenated those topics so that we could discuss them together.

One editor noted that her marketing strategy was very much non-marketing. She mostly just tells her friends what she’s doing and what she’s interested in doing. Her work and reputation have allowed her to build her business by word of mouth.

One editor has a diverse portfolio, including writing, editing, indexing, and training. When she has enough work of one type but wants more of another, she targets her online presence to the channel she’d like to build.

Not everyone in the room had a website, but those who did thought it was a valuable part of their marketing. A lot of people had LinkedIn profiles, but we seemed to agree that LinkedIn served as a useful secondary verification, not a good primary means of marketing.

Setting rates

Should you post your rates? That point was controversial. One editor pointed out that having a rate sheet that you send out takes away some of the anxiety of quoting rates or negotiating. Another editor has an instant estimator right on her site. One person said that having a rate sheet or a calculator wouldn’t work for her—she has different rates for different clients, and the rates may vary wildly based on the complexity of the material. She always asks for the document or a sample to give an estimate. Whether you charge by the word or hour or project, it all boils down to the same thing—if you’re good at estimating!

Perfect versus good enough?

How much effort should you sink into a project in the quest for perfection? This discussion was interesting: was a sign of a kind of “editorial maturity” the recognition that it never pays to care more than the client? “Some edits we make because they’re needed,” said one editor. “Some things we sneak in to impress other editors.” If a client wouldn’t appreciate the latter, then those changes probably aren’t worth it. One editor said that for a new client, she always strives for perfection, because she’s hoping for repeat business.

Workflows

How do we educate our clients about workflow best practices? The reality is, as one editor pointed out, “the best workflow for an editor isn’t necessarily the best workflow for an organization.” Organizations may have several authors collaborating on a document and many layers of approval. Self-publishers are more likely to have more flexible timelines, but some of them also need a lot of handholding about process. “About half of the work I do is educating self-publishing clients about the publishing process,” said one editor. Another problem with workflow is that a lot of editors who have never worked in house may not realize how the entire production machine works and how they fit into it. The Toronto EAC branch offers a yearly seminar on production editing—perhaps a consideration for other branches as well? Those of us who have worked in house but are now freelance also need to keep on top of developments in production workflow, because “some things are changing in house, and old rules don’t apply.”

Mentorship

What used to be a benefit of working in house was the mentorship you’d get from a senior editor. That system has changed, especially since editorial training programs have become more popular, although we seemed to agree that internships ideally ought to work on a mentorship model. One editor noted that we need mentorship in both directions: we can teach more junior editors editorial skills, while they may be able to teach us the best ways to use newer technologies. Our network, the EAC Listserv, and the Editors’ Association of Earth Facebook page were all cited as excellent sources of advice.

Usability testing

We moved on to usability testing, which is an essential part of the plain language process. We hear about it a lot but don’t necessarily know how to do it. Those who have done usability testing could attest to its value: although as editors we try to stay informed about a host of different topics, we have to remember that we have our own specialized language that others may not understand. It takes only two or three users to identify what the major problems are with your document. Usertesting.com offers online user testing that’s relatively affordable, and they have great packages if you aim to do a lot of testing.

Style guides

How do you achieve buy-in with style guides? Call it quality assurance, said one editor. If you use PerfectIt, you can use it to export a style guide for easy sharing. Also see my post about how to optimize your house style guide.

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We didn’t have enough time to discuss the remaining topics. Anyone interested in international editing might want to read my summary of a panel discussion on the topic that we had at the EAC-BC branch.

Thanks to all editors who contributed ideas and attended the unconference session. It was a wisdom-fuelled, energizing way to cap off a great conference.

Kath Straub—Is it really plain? A case for content testing (PLAIN 2013)

Kath Straub of Usability.org showed attendees at PLAIN 2013 how important—and easy—user testing is for plain language projects.

She began with an example: the Donate My Data brochure was supposed to inform veterans about a program through which they could donate their health records to test health software. She and her team identified ten “must-know” facts that readers should glean from the brochure and hoped to hit a target of 80 percent recall. They tested the brochure using Mturk, a crowdsourced testing tool run by Amazon, and found that reader recall didn’t meet their expectations. Some of the key facts they wanted to emphasize weren’t clear enough, and, as a result, the brochure wasn’t as persuasive as they’d hoped.

This example highlights the importance of testing, said Straub. “Here we were, plain language people thinking we were good at what we do—yet we were surprised with the results.” In the age of content, she explained, there are no guides, and we have to stop blaming the victim. Usability experts and content experts have to come together to create effective documents and tools.

Fortunately, comprehension testing sounds harder than it is. There are three types:

1. “Simple” comprehension testing

Did the users get the key facts? To see if they did, the user testing team should

  • agree on the facts
  • decide which are the most important
  • create a question for each fact
  • agree on the answers

Pre-test your questions, and expect to revise them several times. Good questions are hard to write—test takers remember strategies for answering multiple choice questions from school (e.g., the longer, specific answer is the right one)—so offer participants an alternative to guessing (e.g., “The brochure didn’t say”).

Test multiple versions of your comprehension test to narrow down which version might work best for which audiences.

When reporting results, it’s important to note not only how many people got a question right but also what those who got it wrong chose as answers.

2. Confidence testing

Could users explain what they’ve just read to a family member of friend?

3. Persuasiveness testing

Users may understand the content, but will they change their behaviour accordingly? Understand their motivators, their concerns, and their barriers.

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Straub has used Mturk for a lot of her user testing: participants get paid a small amount to answer an online survey. The advantages are that Mturk has a wide reach across the U.S., which translates to a lot of participants. The disadvantage is that you don’t have much control over your testing population. As such, your test should start with a filter—a comprehension test and “catch” questions (e.g., “Answer A even if you know that’s not the right answer”)—that can help narrow down your pool of testers who are genuinely reading the questions. Over time, you create a “panel” of people who return to your studies. “You get what you invest and what you pay for,” said Straub.

Each testing session takes about a week, including setup and analysis.

Using tools like Mturk, Straub reiterated, crowdsourced testing can be quick, inexpensive, and effective. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be robust. Most importantly, she said, you don’t know something is plain language to your target audience unless you’ve tested it in your target audience.

Sarah Stacy-Baynes and Anne-Marie Chisnall—User testing: health booklets that work for people (PLAIN 2013)

Sarah Stacy-Baynes is the national information manager at the Cancer Society of New Zealand, and she teamed up with plain language specialist Anne-Marie Chisnall of Write Limited to work on twenty booklets for cancer patients and their families, covering topics from types of cancer and types of treatments to living well with cancer and managing symptoms and side effects. These booklets offer clear, evidence-based information to a general audience, and to ensure that they remain accurate, relevant, and useful, Stacy-Baynes and her team put each of them through a review process once every four to five years. Oncologists, nurses, and other health practitioners are consulted to ensure the content is up to date, and the team actively solicits user feedback. Not only does each booklet contain a feedback form at the back, which asks such questions as “Did you find this booklet helpful?”, “Did you find this booklet easy to understand?”, and “Did you have any questions not answered in the booklet?”, but it also undergoes rigorous user testing before publication or republication.

For these booklets Stacy-Baynes and Chisnall performed think-aloud testing, a method in which test subjects receive a document they’ve never seen before and talk about it as they go through it. Each testing session includes a tester, user, and note taker, and it may be recorded (video or audio). The tester uses a script to work with the participants, and they make sure the users are informed about confidentiality and other ethical issues.

The tester and user go through a warm-up exercise first, on an unrelated item such as a menu. Once testing begins, the tester can reflect or repeat what the user says but can’t directly ask the user any questions. However, the tester can coach the user to make sure he or she has thought about the visuals, for example. A video of a sample testing session can be found here.

To recruit testers, Stacy-Baynes and her team asked for volunteers at the cancer society and through Cancer Connect, a peer support group for cancer patients and their families. As a result, their pool of testers was a representative sample of their target audience. They also made sure to recruit Māori participants: each booklet is bilingual—in English and Te Reo Māori—a particularly important feature because, as Stacy-Baynes noted, of all ethnicities of women, Māori women have the highest incidence of lung cancer. The team found that testing five participants for each booklet gave them plenty of useful feedback.

They discovered through their testing that users

  • preferred that the cover image not be of a person—they and their families didn’t want to see pictures of sick people when the booklet was out on their coffee table (the booklets now feature photos of plants)
  • wanted to see pictures of the treatment facilities
  • wanted to see pictures of Māori
  • preferred simplified diagrams rather than detailed medical illustrations.

Stacy-Baynes did encounter problems during the project—for example, some clinicians reviewing the material were sometimes determined to include some content regardless of whether the readers wanted it. Keeping team members motivated and interested through the long process of testing and redrafting was also challenging, but the team gained a lot of information from user testing that they wouldn’t otherwise have found.