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Sarah is about as big-time as it gets within the ‘content scene’. She worked within the Government in 2010, and studies user-centred design techniques to inform and transform their content. The tone, accessibility standards and general ease of use that the Gov websites are known for is largely down to Sarah’s brain, and the team she led during that time.
She now leads the agency Content Design London, who offer training, consultancy and coaching to organisations who need optimum communication and cut-through across their marketing. We very much recommend her book ‘Content Design’ – in her own words; “a short, lively and practical introduction to content design. Using real-world and imagined examples, it steps you through the content design process, explaining everything along the way.”
Sarah, explain what you do and what you care about
I run a digital agency called Content Design London, and I care about accessible and inclusive information above all else, work wise, obviously.
How do you personally go about explaining the importance of online accessibility to someone who’d never even considered it?
I love this. This is game time. So we have the kits that you can get, the accessibility kits, you know – the glasses that you can put on and all that sort of thing. One of my favourites is to get people to use their phones with gloves on and previously in the civil service, when there was no money for this sort of thing, (we’re talking a long time ago), you could get gloves and just put rice in it, stupid things. Anything that would stop the mobility.
And then when people are starting to use their own service, particularly getting the board to do it, get five minutes in a board meeting saying, “Hello, you see this, do this task, but you’ve got to have these glasses or these gloves or whatever.” When they go “Ugh!” and they go to take that off, you say “Unh unh. [wags finger] Keep that on there all day. Keep it on for an hour. Keep it on for however long it is.” That is a bit much because usually within seconds people are trying to get this stuff off.
The other thing is, the NoCoffee Simulator in Chrome is brilliant for really short stop. You turn a laptop around, you put their website on it and just let them change the sliders and just talk them through the processes and talk them through some of the conditions that they have. Throw in some numbers about how many people have that condition in that country or that area, if you can find it.
The thing that I would say is that I never poke and I never make it into an accusatory thing. With big companies, we should absolutely be accusing them for not doing it right. But with a lot of smaller companies, they’ve never tripped over it, and when they do, they have this perception that it’s stupid expensive. And so I need to dispel that as I go through as well.
But generally it’s the NoCoffee Simulator or one of the bit of kit that I’ve normally got on me. Just let them play and do their own task – define their own task and try and make them do it. It’s usually the conversation starter.
How do you think the internet will change over the next ten years, and what specific features or habits that exist now, do you hope will be seen as from that time?
The answer to that question depends on how jaded I feel that particular day, to be honest. Sometimes I just think it’s going to become such a mire of disinformation that people will switch off and you’ll get two camps, much as we’re seeing at the moment where people are falling into camps pretty staunchly.
I think we’ll find it on the internet as well and there’ll be people who love it and trust it and just look at anything that they look at and they think that’s it.
And then you’ll get the people who are terribly jaded and they won’t believe anything that’s in front of them, even when it’s important that they believe it. So, say, a massive disaster’s coming.
So I think we are going to get this polarization certainly for the next five, ten years. And I think it’s going to make things very, very difficult. Because there are going to be people who need to get that information across like government, like certain charities, that sort of thing, and they’re not going to be trusted.
I think that’s going to be a huge issue in terms of their time. I’m really hoping basic things like colour contrast and not having alt text, things like that that everybody can do easily – it’s not going to cost you millions – that I would hope that it is of its time. What I would also like to see, but I’m unconvinced at the moment, is that all the big companies have sign language interpretation on everything that they do. I can’t see it right now, I can see small movements towards it, but I would certainly like to see that.
If you’re with somebody who needs to check how accessible their website is, but only has five minutes – talk us through how you go about sharing them.
Yeah, I would do the NoCoffee Simulator more than anything else, but I think it’s because people generally leap from accessibility to either you can’t see, can’t hear or you have major impairments. Often, if you say accessibility or usability, they’ll think screen readers.
So if I’ve only got five minutes, I’ll go, “Okay, well, let’s take a look at what it looks like for somebody with glaucoma. Let’s take a look at your site with a massive hero image and you’ve got a scroll forever. And I’m just going to take away your index finger. What now?” And then just open that conversation.
Normally within that five minutes, I’ll get into neurodiversity and I will get into sentence lengths and the sorts of things that they can do easily. I can get through a lot in five minutes, I’ll talk really quick.
In terms of the adoption of accessible digital products, what do you think is the biggest challenge?
I think it’s perception. It’s simply perception that it doesn’t matter enough. I still think there are people in this country who think, “Well, there’s not enough disabled people for me to put money into that.”
So I think, the innovation is stalled. But I also think that it is changing. It might be all bubble, but when we go into organizations and we start to talk to them about everything that is on offer for them and all of the things that they can get into and all the things that they could do, most of it is just because they haven’t looked into it and they do think accessibility, screen reading, and then they stop that.
So I think there needs to be industry wide conversations, usually on social media or something that people might pay attention to or what’s on offer and what the impact might be. And then hopefully we can start getting rid of this perception that it’s just too much and not worth it.
What is the one thing that every single person can do or learn to play a part in the progression towards an accessible internet?
I think it’s understanding actually the different types of barriers. So, for example, if I go into a board meeting or councillors or whatever, I will talk about money and efficiency. If I’m going in a project level, I’ll talk about efficiency and user.
And so it’s a content design problem, as always. Who’s your audience? What do they care about? What language are they using? And then use that back to them and give them back their priorities in their way.
So I think everybody can start having those conversations and also showing them how content itself has a massive effect on usability. If you shorten your sentences from 32 words, whatever it is that you’re using, down to 19, you suddenly get a lot more people, whether they identify as disabled or not. Just stressed people on a bus, you’re going to get more of them and you’re going to get more comprehension, which is the important bit.
I would also show them mucking around with that sentence length, what it can do if you have a glossary and it opens up in a new window and you’re pushing people out. I can show them how difficult that can be and how some people don’t know how to get back, all of that sort of thing.
So I think the one thing that everybody can do are these smaller things to their content in the content management system, so they haven’t got to worry about code and undoing their content management system. None of that. They don’t need to worry about any of it. It’s just changing words and pictures and videos, and everybody can do that.