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Accessibility and UX Writing: Why Language Matters for Digital Accessibility

UX Writing is an important factor when it comes to making a page accessible. This article is part of our series on accessibility and covers the section "Language and Media". It addresses the linguistic-textual dimension of digital products, because it is not "just" a good user experience and user interface design that make a digital product a good product.

If you're interested in UX writing in general, you can learn why we pay a UX writer at sum.cumo here.

When it comes to the texts for a website, we often get to hear requirements like "different", "unique", "fresh" or "young". What this means exactly and whether this linguistic approach even fits the brand as sender is often not defined exactly. Whether this "fresh" text can be understood by users without any problems is usually left completely out of the equation.

Of course, this is not a plea for interchangeable text modules that are just as suitable on a website for wooden furniture as on one for software.

Certain words, terms and formulations are learned, generally understandable and the reference to reality in everyday life is quickly established. There are also conventions with regard to sentence construction, grammar and structure that promote better comprehensibility. Not for nothing there is quite officially the "easy language" (LS), in which according to § 11 of the German Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities, German authorities should provide more and more their offers.

Aim: A simple and understandable application

By providing users with a particularly simple and comprehensible application, we usually already stand out from the competition to such an extent that we can largely dispense with "fresh" texts as a unique selling point.

This is exactly where the interplay between accessibility and UX writing comes in. It is about reducing complexity and the resulting barriers. This refers not only to the sheer amount of text, but also to word choice, sentence length, abstraction, and text structure.

Because users are not all the same, of course. When writing for websites, we cannot take it for granted that readers have a (very) high level of education, can read without problems, or understand what we want to convey without any restrictions. What is needed here is empathy and imagination about who will end up using your digital products.

The raison d'être of UX Writing

Because it's often users:inside with cognitive disabilities that have difficulty understanding complex texts. Likewise, non-native speakers find complex texts challenging. Not to mention users who just want to get to their goal quickly and don't want to interpret a supposed poem. Users need to read and understand what they are supposed to do. That is the stated raison d'être of UX writing.

The digitization of insurance (which is a large part of my work as a UX writer) is particularly in need of explanation. After all, we know:

More interaction occurs on a website when content is understood and a dialogue can be established between user:in and the medium. The result: more users perform the desired actions, which ultimately generates more sales.

From my point of view, there is hardly a better argument why one should pay attention to the language if business goals are pursued with the website.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

When writing for digital products, certain standards should apply. These standards ensure that the use of the products is as simple, understandable and purposeful as possible for user:s at all times. This should always be a matter of course, not only when accessibility is explicitly mentioned in the requirements. Transferring these standards to the different use cases of product text or microcopy helps to make content easy to understand for landing pages, forms and thank you pages.

Helps for writing understandable and targeted text.

Word choice

  • It shows empathy towards the user:s when common keywords from a search engine are picked up in the website text. They then have the feeling that you are talking to them "in their own words". Goal: Use the words that people search for (e.g. with the help of Google Trends).
  • Avoid "officialese" and explain administrative procedures as clearly as possible. If you use abbreviations that the target audience may not know, you should break them up or explain them the first time you use them.
  • It is best to avoid non-specific terms and replace them with clear facts. This is especially true for time references, such as dates.
  • Short words are easier to read. Compound words can be made more readable by using hyphens.

Language level

  • Writing at a low level of difficulty helps users to grasp the content more quickly. This is especially helpful for users with a different native language or general reading difficulties.
  • Goal: Write text at a 9th grade or B1 level that is easy to read, even for non-German speaking users.
  • Simple terms are better than complicated ones. Foreign and technical words or Anglicisms should be avoided.
  • Use short sentences: Sentences with more than 20 words can usually be split - period instead of comma is the motto. If possible, there should be no more than six words between the subject and the predicate.
  • Only ever make one statement in a sentence.

Text structure

  • Carefully structured texts are easier to read and can be understood more quickly.
  • The focus is on the essentials. It is best to leave out the superfluous.
  • Use active rather than passive constructions: It must be clear who is doing what.
  • Put the information in a sentence in a logical order, with the important details first. That way, the content is useful to all reader:s.

Application to UX Writing

If we now apply these quality criteria to the use cases of UX Writing or product text, we get specific recommendations on what language works best for digital products.

Kinneret Yifrah has done this in her book "Microcopy. The complete guide" clearly and comprehensively elaborates. Every product manager should read this standard work. It is now also available in German translation.

Here are selected practical examples as an excerpt, which can be directly implemented in the textual design of digital products:

Login, Registration & Co.

Use terms such as "sign up," "log in," "register," or "create customer account" with a clear distinction, and not sometimes like this, sometimes like that. Keep the chosen term in the following process to remain consistent.

Keep registration forms as short as possible and do not overload them. A form should look simple, so use as little text as possible. Use placeholders only when necessary and when it helps users. Do not use placeholders to indicate how to fill in the form (format, number of characters, etc.), as they are no longer visible when the user clicks on them. Better put next to the field as a tooltip or next to the label on the input field.

Mandatory fields: It must always be made clear which fields are optional and which are not. E.g. with the help of an asterisk and the addition "optional".

Search & find

Placeholders are justified in search fields, as they motivate users to use the search function. Especially in case of open questions, corresponding placeholders help to fill in.

Forgotten password: In this situation, users have only one goal in mind, so choose a simple, short and effective text. If necessary, add a short explanation about the procedure.

Error messages & confirmations.

Error messages are an important part of the conversation with users. They must be designed in such a way that users can move on and not end up in a dead end. The more generic, the less helpful. Don't use technical terms; instead, use a friendly, engaging tone.

Users expect a confirmation or success message after they have performed an action. Confirmations or success messages are important because they provide reassurance, information about the next step, and the opportunity to create a positive experience for users.

CTA & Buttons

Buttons and call-to-actions are where users make the decision to act, where the conversion takes place - or not. Therefore, this is a very special focus.
Buttons should not use generic labels, but should refer specifically to the page on which the user will continue after clicking.

Functional buttons, however, should follow the familiar standard, e.g. Continue / Pay securely / Edit / Share / Save / Upload etc.

Tooltips & Instructions

Tooltips aim to guide users through the process quickly and smoothly and to provide assistance. Do users need help and if so, where? The maximum amount of information should be conveyed in as few words as possible. Of course, it should be as uncomplicated as possible.

Instructions should be simple and clear, but in a friendly, service-oriented way. It must not sound like a command!

Formatting and symbols

Ideally, the system will accept any formatting for user:inside input. Otherwise, just give clear hints about the formatting needed, e.g. right next to the input field.

Accessibility and language

Kinneret Yifrah devotes a separate chapter to the topic of accessibility. Here is a summary of the most important points:

  • A screen reader reads the website from top to bottom and from left to right. Therefore, microcopy must always come before possible interaction.

  • No text should be written below confirmation buttons. Error messages must also be designed accordingly.

  • Please consider that users do not see the whole screen, but only hear parts of it. Therefore: name error messages, success messages and empty states explicitly.

  • If the e-mail address is requested, it must be stated why it is requested (e.g. for newsletter registration or customer account opening?).

  • Images and icons must be provided with an alternative text, e.g. "i"/"?"/"!" > "More information", so that the screen reader can read it aloud.

  • Links and button texts should be made more descriptive, as screen readers allow these functions:
    -> Navigate only between headlines
    -> Navigate only between links and buttons
    User:inside must recognize by the caption which page to expect next.

  • Never insert microcopy as an image, but always as real text. Otherwise screen readers cannot read the text.

  • Not everyone understands abbreviations, acronyms and puns. Therefore: Write as simple and understandable as possible. Call a spade a spade. Don't want to be clever just for the sake of being clever.

… which brings us back to the beginning of this article :-)

I hope this post provides an overview and useful guidance on the topic of language, text and accessibility. It's a complex topic and requires both a strategic approach and craftsmanship. These investments are worthwhile, not only in light of the ever-advancing digitalization.


Sources:
Microcopy. the complete guide. by Kinneret Yifrah. Haifa 2019
Specifications of the University of Hohenheim


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Julia Gebauer
Julia
Gebauer
#ux Julia joined sum.cumo as a senior copywriter in May 2017. She is now part of the UX team as a UX writer, where she delivers text for the digital products of sum.cumo and clients. Her aim is to produce clear language that makes the use of these products as simple and comprehensible as possible, and to allow a kind of human dialogue to take shape. Julia works across projects and customers and also takes care of content, text, words and language at sum.cumo beyond web applications. Before her time as UX writer in Hamburg, Julia was involved in marketing communications for various companies: After studying literature in Germany and Italy, she worked for several years for the outdooractive.com portal and the logistics company Dachser before moving to the sporting goods industry to join Ortovox and, finally, sum.cumo. Julia appreciates her work at sum.cumo because the way people interact is “truly unique” and she can fully develop and contribute her diverse interests and talents. In addition, she appreciates being able to determine her own work and having a successful work-life balance. 
This is especially important to her because she now lives as a remote colleague in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, where she spends every free minute in the mountains or at the lakes. She recharges her batteries with outdoor sports and nature, and otherwise she loves the sea and likes to surf, take pictures or read a good book.
 In her spare time, Julia writes for a mountain sports portal, and she publishes her travel photos on juliagebauer.com. All articles by Julia