I share my time working as an independent inclusive design consultant and a disability employment specialist for New South Wales State Government Department of Education. What is common to these roles is ensuring that no matter how we live, learn and work, our environments are accessible and designed to enable and maximize participation by people with disabilities - on the same basis - straight from the start. It involves the removal of barriers to participation through embedding inclusive design in everyone’s thinking and responses. My passion for inclusive design is based on my own visual disability and progressed to professional studies and industry accreditation. Through inclusive design, we can create solutions that are essential for some and useful for all.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has seen a growth in inclusive solutions. It prompted many companies and communities to transform how they live, learn and work. Working flexibly has become the default with inclusive platforms such as Microsoft Teams as the hub for communication and collaboration, and its tight integration with Office 365. The accessibility support within Microsoft Teams and across Office 365 has enabled and empowered people with disabilities to participate as equals right from the start.
No matter how accessible the operating systems and apps that we use are, the weak point for inclusion is the everyday design decisions we and our team members make when designing digital resources (content, apps and systems). In particular, it can be something as simple as text-based content. Our design decisions shape the ability of others to access, participate in, and contribute to on the same basis. In this article, we look at how our design decisions about text-based content can hinder or support our audience to quickly and easily read, comprehend and act upon it.
Sadly, much of the current content I encounter (such as briefs, reports and educational resources) hinders reading efficiency and disables it. The central problem lies in the fact that content design decisions are based on paper-based rules whilst our workflows are digital-first. As eye-tracking research highlights, applying paper-based design rules to a digital-first workflow reduces reading efficiency by 20–25%! Our content design decisions do not consider the impact of newer high-resolution screens as well as changes in visual acuity as a result of ageing.
Yes, an accessibility checker can help, but our answer lies deeper where accessibility, usability and inclusive design intersect. Yet, while the answer lies deeper, the solution is surprisingly simple and elemental.
What is it that differentiates a 40+ year old reader from a 25-year old reader, and why is this important to how we design? A lot of changes start to occur to our body from around the age of 40 (no, it is not a second puberty!). Around the age of 40, we begin to notice a decrease in our visual capabilities. This is part of the normal ageing process. Some examples of the 40+ experience include:
These common age-related vision issues are important considerations when creating content (and designing digital systems). Legibility is critical to reading efficiency for anyone, but especially for people with low vision and those over 40 years of age.
Digital-first workflows are characterized by creating and reading onscreen. Devices come in different shapes and sizes, but what is shared is the resolution of the screens.
The sheer number of pixels densely packed into hi-res screens make the content look sharper, but it also makes it look smaller. As an example, an 11pt font only equates to about 15 pixels (px) in height. On hi-res screens, this makes the 11pt font look like an 8pt font which is harder to read and slower to comprehend. Taking this into consideration is an important design consideration.
Firstly, Microsoft has done exceptional work in supporting everyone to improve their on-screen reading with the development of Immersive Reader. It is a free tool that implements proven techniques to improve reading for people regardless of their age or ability. Immersive Reader features are available in multiple products including Microsoft Teams. It really is brilliant, and Microsoft is to be congratulated for their work on this feature.
However, just because Immersive Reader exists, it doesn’t let individuals off the hook from making inclusive design decisions! First and foremost, it is about changing mindsets that work in digital-first environments.
Page limit is paper-based thinking. Word limit is digital-first. Applying page limits leads to poor design choices. An example of poor design decisions is the common executive brief template. It has a paper size of A4, with a 2-page limit and a default paragraph style of Arial 11pt and single line spacing. These design decisions are chosen to constrain document length whilst maximizing (shoehorning) the amount of text on those pages. These design decisions decrease legibility and reading efficiency. Word limits will encourage clarity of thought, while increasing the default paragraph font size. Line spacing also increases legibility and reading efficiency.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, the simple rule for improving legibility was to use a Sans Serif font such as Microsoft-designed Verdana to enhance on-screen reading. Now with hi-res screens, we have more choice, but it has to be an informed choice centered on legibility.
Legibility is whether people are able to easily see, distinguish, and recognize the characters and words in your text. The main guidelines to ensure legibility are:
A clean typeface is one where the:
It is worth noting that Apple uses 17pt (23 px) as their default body text size on the iPhone with a line spacing of about 1.28 li. Similarly, self-publishing sites such as Medium use a 22pt (29px) font size with a line spacing of about 1.5 li. These larger font sizes and more generous line spacing increase reading efficiency and engagement.
Contrast and color use are vital to reading efficiency and accessibility. All readers, including readers with visual disabilities, must be able to perceive content on the page. The Paciello Group's free app Color Contrast Analyser (CCA) helps you determine the legibility of text and the contrast of visual elements, such as graphical controls and visual indicators.
Adopting the mindsets and methods of word limits and legibility will make a big difference in improving reading efficiency. Both are easy to adopt and implement. It takes the pressure off tired eyes, enables better decision making and gives time back to those forced to struggle through poorly designed content. The next part of the journey for improving reading efficiency is to stop colleagues exporting documents into PDFs. But that is a story for another day.
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