Don’t hide bad news behind weak headings

If you have good news, you make your message as clear as possible. Do the same thing with bad news, for the sake of your readers.

When you book a flight with Air New Zealand, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what’s up.

Your booking has been completed

Then, when Air New Zealand are about to fly you somewhere, and they have a few things they think you might like to know about the flight, and what to do while you’re away, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what it’s about. Continue reading

Web accessibility: Because even if your company doesn’t want to, it has to

Web accessibility is self-evidently a good thing. The more people who can access and understand your content, the better, right? But that doesn’t mean that getting people to come on “the accessibility journey” with you is always easy. It sounds difficult, the pay-off isn’t always easy to imagine, and for some people it seems like a touchy-feely way to make your website somehow less sparkly. These excuses are all wrong, but that doesn’t mean no-one believes them.

Some people you just can’t turn into a massive champion of accessibility. Sorry. Some people don’t particularly care – they just want to get stuff online in the most painless way possible. If you’ve exhausted your friendly options, the next logical step is therefore increase the pain that inaccessible content causes them.

In the corporate world there’s at least a chance that your company already has a policy that supports accessibility, even if no-one’s really following it. Invisible policies are easy to ignore, but by drawing attention to your company’s own rules you make it harder for people to force through bad, inaccessible content.

The request: Publish an inaccessible PDF. Now.

I’m settling back into professional life in New Zealand and I still don’t know the web industry’s regulatory background too well. So today I decided to look into it from the point of view of a web content guy who works at a bank here. (Not a huge stretch, admittedly, since I’m a web content guy for an Aussie bank, but they say you should write about what you know.) Taking a common problem, how would I deal with a request to publish an inaccessible PDF?

Let’s assume that the job is urgent, the stakeholder powerful, and the content difficult to extract into any other format. In short, doing things the nice way isn’t an option today. When the way of the carrot fails, one must know how to wield a stick. In this case, what can you do? WCAG 2.0 isn’t a binding piece of legislation, and the best-known national standards only apply to governmental websites.

Digging out a reason to say “no”

Luckily, banks have already made the exact stakeholder-beating stick that we need – it’s just not immediately obvious. Here’s the trail I managed to piece together solely from public websites. For a big, established industry it’s not unusual.

Companies, as part of an industry group, have made a broad promise

I started with the banks themselves.

BNZ’s “Supporting communities” page has a section about “Making banking accessible to everyone” (link updated 14/10/2016, quote updated 24/2/2017), which says in part:

Together with the New Zealand Bankers’ Association and other New Zealand banks, we’ve supported the introduction of voluntary guidelines to meet the needs of elderly and disabled customers.

[Emphasis added. You’ll see why soon.]

Westpac is similar:

We’ve also worked in cooperation with other New Zealand banks and the NZBA to back the introduction of customer service guidelines for our elderly and disabled customers.

Like the others, Kiwibank’s Code of Banking Responsibility tells us that they’re going to follow the NZBA’s lead:

To help ensure we meet our obligations to New Zealand, Kiwibank has signed up to the Code of Banking Practice, which sets out best industry practice and what banks will do for customers.

Worringly, I couldn’t find anything on ASB or ANZ’s websites about this sort of thing (unless you count ANZ’s Australian site, but in this case I don’t). But, just like the others, they’re members of the NZ Bankers’ Association (NZBA), so they’re not off the hook.

Still, all we have are “support”, “best industry practice” and “guidelines” for serving people with a disability. This isn’t much use if you want a solid reason to send a PDF back to where it came from. We need details.

Follow the trail back to the industry group

The NZBA guidelines that our banks “support” and “back” start with the Code of Banking Practice. The code’s introduction, paragraph 1.2c, says:

We will recognise the needs of elderly and disabled Customers to have access to banking services and we will use our reasonable endeavours to enhance access to those services for these Customers.

This broad commitment is better, but we need to know what “reasonable endeavours” we have to take. Is it reasonable to hold back a lump of inaccessible content? Helpfully, the appendix clarifies that “reasonable endeavours”:

Means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed…to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others.

Now we’re getting somewhere, especially with that “necessary […] modification” and “equal basis” stuff. But if we’re composing a strongly-worded response to a company senior we still need more.

The industry relies on existing standards

By creating guidelines for the way they should do things, industries are often trying to avoid direct government regulation. This means that “voluntary” guidelines are often written in the style of legislation – strong, detailed and official-sounding.

In this case, unsurprisingly, the Bankers’ Association hasn’t come up with its own web standards. Instead the Voluntary Guidelines to Assist Banks to Meet the Needs of Older and Disabled Customers, paragraph 5.10 [edited below] commits banks to:

consider…use of W3C web accessibility best practice standard, and the accessibility-related New Zealand e-government web standards and recommendations.

We’re getting close to our slam dunk here.

The “New Zealand e-government standards” have been renamed the New Zealand Government Web Standards. The “Technical” section of these standards requires us to aim for WCAG 2.0 success criteria AA, and also adds a few NZ-specific standards (known as the ‘New Zealand layer’).

In the case of the PDF problem, the New Zealand layer is directly on our side, too: “You may publish your document in any format only if you provide an accessible alternative.”

The lesson: What sounds like an empty corporate crap is a lot more than that

This all began with a watery-sounding start along the lines of “support for the introduction of customer service guidelines for elderly and disabled customers”. That’s not exactly a convincing line to quote back at a forceful, disinterested stakeholder. But by following a path through a few dense documents we’ve ended up on incredibly solid ground – an explicit commitment to WCAG 2.0.

This electronic paper trail tells us that all the major banks in this country have all promised to aim for AA compliance with WCAG 2.0. Even though the accessibility statements on their own websites can seem weak (or aren’t even there to start with), a little bit of digging gives us web professionals some very staunch support when we push for accessibility.

So the message to our difficult stakeholder isn’t “we’d rather not publish this document, because some people won’t be able to read it”. Instead it’s “we’re bound by NZBA standards as well as national and international web requirements. All of these things prevent us from publishing this document”.

This is all public. If you don’t do the right thing, someone else will

Everything linked and quoted above is out there on the web. If you don’t make a stand for accessibility and keep your company in line with the promises it’s made, you can expect that one day your customers will pull you up instead. And they’ll have much less reason to be nice and polite (not to mention non-litigious) when they do.


Disclosure: I work for the National Australia Bank (NAB). BNZ is part of the NAB Group, and for a few months now I’ve been working alongside (but not with, or for) some of BNZ’s web team. The example of a grumpy stakeholder pushing an inaccessible PDF is, despite its incredibly realistic appearance, fictional.

Eight simple favours you can do your readers

The subject of adult literacy came up at work today. As a writer you need to know and serve your audience, and your audience isn’t always great at extracting meaning from strings of words. So, based on a rant I fired out to a few hundred colleagues, here are eight favours you can do your readers.

1. Treat plain language as seriously as any other aspect of accessibility

Complex language excludes people. Don’t write to appeal to a narrow audience – write for as many people as you can and let your audience choose itself. It’s that simple.

2. Break bad habits: Don’t join in when people talk shit

You’re in a meeting and someone mentions that, going forward, we’re going to leverage third party relationships more effectively. Do you start brainstorming ways to effectively leverage relationships, or do you start writing down things that you can do better when you work with other companies? There’s a difference.

Similarly, do you do BAU, or do you have regular work? Drop acronyms and jargon from they way you talk and they’ll stop turning up in the things you write.

3. Test your work

Whether it’s an automated reading grade check or running your work past a test audience of regular readers, give yourself an idea of how well people will comprehend what you’ve written.

4. Pick someone you know and write as if they’re the audience

A trusted old trick. Warren Buffett famously writes his company’s annual reports as if his sisters are reading. All you need to do is think of a regular person. It’s cheating if you choose the smartest person you know.

5. Admit it: People don’t use glossaries

Glossaries say, “yeah, we knew we were confusing people, so we figure they can keep doing research and cross-referencing stuff until they can keep up with us”. People say, “screw that, I’ll just ask someone else”.

Things need to make sense straight away, not after you explain yourself a second time.

6. Help each other

Yes, sometimes you’ll get stuck. If you work with other writers or an editor, don’t by shy to ask for help with a phrase that you can’t get right. No colleagues to call on? You wouldn’t be the first person to tweet with the hashtag #plainlanguage and tap into brains all around the world.

7. Remember the adult literacy stats

In the USA, for example, 46-51% of adults have low literacy. Australia is similar, with 44% of adults at level 1 or 2 (of 5). Closer to my home, “distribution of literacy skills within New Zealand is similar to Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom”.

Look up the stats for your audience. Remember them.

8. Cater for busy, distracted readers

Reading comprehension drops with tiredness, stress and distraction. Chances are that your readers haven’t just woken up from a deeply relaxing sleep-in and started their day by looking attentively at a single full-screen window with nothing but your work in front of them.

Write for the people who have the TV on in the corner, fifteen other tabs open, a Facebook chat or two under way and a million other things to think about. If they could ever find the time to get around to it, they’d thank you.

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This post is 542 words long with an average reading grade of 8.0.

Seven things new web writers need to know

A lot of people are interested in, and passionate about, writing but there’s not often a clear way to take that hobby and turn it into a career. One the best parts of my job is finding people in that position and helping them turn writing into a skill they can sell.

This list is lesson one. It’s seven things that I introduce to already well-practised writers who are starting in the web world. Without them they’ll never go from being spare-time writers to earning pay cheques that say “web writer”.

1. Web accessibility

This is almost always new to the writers I work with (which isn’t surprising, given how lowly accessibility rates within large parts of the web industry.) Writing accessible web content isn’t difficult but it can be the difference between silence and conversation.

Accessibility isn’t about disability, so I avoid the old example of “the blind man and the screen reader”. Separating out part of the web-using world as “people who need accessibility” infers that there’s no gain (or maybe even a cost) to the majority of users, which is wrong.

Accessible web content is inclusive. We’re not bolting an “extra” audience onto the side of our core audience. We’re making our core audience as large as possible by letting you be a part of it no matter how you navigate or read the web, or how well you see (if at all), or how you use assistive technology. And that makes our content easier to use.

Even better, the techniques that make written content more accessible overlap other things on this list. (My post on good link text gives an example.)

2. Search engine optimisation (SEO)

This is an easier “sell” than accessibility, even though both increase your audience. A little bit of SEO knowledge can be a bad thing – if you don’t believe me spend 3 minutes reading a keyword-stuffed content farm – so approach SEO with caution.

I’m against anything that strays too close to algorithm-chasing. If you’re writing for the robots first it doesn’t take long for human readers to work out that something’s not quite right. Your writing should make it clear to search robots what you’re writing about without being inhuman.

Writers need to know:

  • the basics of keyword research
  • how and when to use keywords (and when not to)
  • how to write metadata – title, description and keywords for a page.

3. Our in-house writing guidelines

Almost all of the writers I work are already publishing words in one way or another – usually they’re helping with things like brochures or letters, or they have personal blogs. Some are even freelancing on weekends. But so far none have had a style guide they need to stick to.

Like every other corporation we have an in-house guide that solves a lot of grammatical or stylistic things that would otherwise come down to preference, and so differ between authors. For example we keeps things consistent by preferring contractions (“isn’t” over “is not”) and using commas to divide thousands (as in 5,000). We also have additional web writing guidelines.

Referencing every stylistic quibble back to a pair of documents takes time and isn’t an easy habit to pick up, but once you have a feel for a given style it makes writing faster.

4. Our brand voice and tone

Another staple of the corporate world. As well as our style guides we also have a particular brand voice – a way that everything we say should sound. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone is a fantastic example.

Getting brand voice and tone right takes time and practise. Reading examples helps but nothing beats writing, failing and succeeding for yourself.

It’s a big change for a hobby writer, no matter how skilled, to have to sound like someone else. Writing the same thing in different voices can be a good start. (For example: explain your job in a paragraph or two. Then write that explanation like your boss would, then like a bored cynic, then like a hyperactive child.)

5. (Very) basic HTML

I haven’t found a better way to introduce and demystify HTML than to share Mandy Brown’s wonderful article “Markup”. She explains how HTML creates a relationship between your words and their appearance, and then puts designers and readers in control. Writers need to know what meaning HTML can give text (“this text is a heading” means a lot more than “this text is big and bold”), and how to mark up their own text.

Fortunately, there’s a plus side to all this: HTML is easy to learn. Even if you never peeked at the source for a website, never so much as authored an anchor tag, you already know most of the principles behind it, because they emerged from the texts themselves.

Update, May 2013: If you’re hungry for more, the wonderful Karen McGrane has written the main course to follow Mandy’s appitiser: WYSIWTF

6. Writing for scan reading

This starts with a hard truth: people aren’t going to read every word you write. Web users are time poor and task-focused, and they have the whole internet to choose from. They scan read and you need to work with that habit. More than anything else in this list, this shows you the difference between the hobby of writing for yourself and the work of writing for others.

7. Plain language

Plain language fits in with accessibility, SEO, and our company’s writing guidelines and brand voice. (If your company doesn’t encourage plain language, why haven’t you quit yet?) But it’s too important, too underappreciated, and sadly too rare to leave between the lines, so it has its own place in this list.

Without wanting to reduce plain language to the mechanical scoring of reading grades, that at least gives us a starting point.

More posts:

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This post is 991 words long with an average reading grade of 8.5.