I have evaluated at differing levels of detail several corporate/enterprise application for conformance to the WCAG 2.1 guidelines. In the IT environment a lot of focus tends to stick to the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) principle: Perceivable. This is understandable as many of the success criterion under Perceivable can be identified via automated testing tools. However, depending on the type of site you are presenting to users one should remember the CONTENT accessibility as well as the infrastructure/IT accessibility of a system.
Let’s talk about content
W3 provides a fantastic resource for understanding how to improve site accessibility for users who may have cognitive or learning disabilities. However, a lot of the concepts they present are guidelines that will make content more accessible to even those without any disability.
Thinking about things from a usability perspective a lot of the concepts that W3 provides here tie directly to a lot of core usability considerations for any user. List from W3:
- Help users understand what things are and how to use them.
- Help users find what they need.
- Help users understand with clear text and images.
- Provide support for different ways to understand content.
- Help users avoid mistakes. A good design will make errors less likely.
- Help users to maintain focus. Avoid distracting the user from their task.
- Ensure processes do not rely on memory.
- Make it easy to get human help and give feedback.
- Support adaptation and personalization.
- Test with real users!
Help users understand what things are and how to use them
Let’s start with the first user story the W3 guide provides: Clear Purpose. There are two branches here to consider. What is the purpose of your site? What is the purpose of where you are on the site. At any point at any area of the site a user should be able to easily identify the purpose of where they are. This sounds simple enough but is often obscured.
For sites which are providing a specific service users will often be going into the site understanding the basic service offering. E.g. I am using Spotify, I know that it is a music service. However, a service like Google at its core provides the purpose of being a Search Engine, but it also has a ton of sub-purpose tools like mail, maps, YouTube, news, and so on.
One thing I have encountered with some product teams is that they try to oversimplify pages in the name of aesthetics and making things “easier”. I am a huge fan of minimalism and keeping pages nice and clean. However, stripping out every piece of waypointing and orientation will make your site too obscure especially for new users.
Content Creators Authoring and Publication Standards
Take a creature like YouTube. Anyone can upload a video about anything within their guidelines. There are professional level videos down to a random clip from someone’s cell phone. For the sake of talking about Clear Purpose let’s talk look at a landing page sample from YouTube.
Upper 1/3 of the Screen
Interestingly, YouTube decides to offer the incredibly valuable upper 1/3 of their screen space to an advertisement that would take a user away from their site. YouTube relies heavily on tribal knowledge and notoriety to remove the need for things like basic orientation text or providing really any direct cue of what the site is for or what it is.
Imagine coming to YouTube for the first time and you didn’t know what it was. The first upper third of the screen is an advertisement which is somewhat deceptive (which we’ll see even more later) which you click and you are taken out of the page. If you click the left half it actually is an embedded YouTube clip. But the right will bump you out to the advertiser site.
I ran NVDA the screen reader to see how a user who has blindness would interpret this. It is not exactly clear… YouTube provides a “Skip to Content” which is a traditional accessibility feature to skip navigation. Great! It skips me to the advertisement at the top. A YouTube video where it announces an obscure YouTube link (you know how the end of URLs are a random collection of numbers/letters). Then you tab forward with your trusty keyboard and it starts talking about Apple TV+ and announces the WATCH NOW button. This seems kind of deceptive because I’d think of watching to activate YouTube functionality, but it doesn’t the WATCH now boots you out to Apple’s site.
Also, I’m here for YouTube so the fact that it immediately starts announcing Apple TV almost made me feel like I’m in the wrong place. Now, keep in mind this is a specific example where an Apple TV ad pops up. You may have some other ad, for something less close. But you may see the confusion some ads can cause especially if they aren’t marked clearly for both visual and non-visual users.
Let’s Decrease Visual Acuity to Remove Aesthetic Bias
So now let’s look at the above sample with an added visual impairment. This is a user who may have low vision. The thumbnails are still fairly visible and unique especially those who use a lot of color. The less clearly defined thumbnails lose a lot of value. And the text becomes unusable. So let’s Take it one step further and think about the above eight videos except with no thumbnail to encourage clicking.
The screen reader relies on the title of the video and also announces things like view count, video length, and when the video was published.
The video stats are interesting but of differing levels of value to a user. If you know the content creator it’s helpful otherwise is meaningless. The amount of views gives an idea of how popular the video is which can help in browsing for content. The upload date is probably less valuable unless it’s a timely video. The length of the video is the most valuable.
Let’s use “non-visual” in the sense of relying JUST on the title to direct a user (sighted or not) as to whether they’d click on the video.
Video 1: Lil Nas X Robolox Concert(Behind the Scenes): Eternal; 2.8M views; 2 weeks ago; 1:40
What would the above description tell you about the video? They provide some key title words to give you an idea… If you don’t know who Lil Nas or what Roblox is that is unhelpful. Concert & behind the scenes provide pretty clear description of what to expect here.
Video 2: 1 Pro vs 7 Golds (Impossible Rocket League Challenge)
1 Pro vs 7 Golds is the first thing you read. Unless someone have very specific domain knowledge it is meaningless. If they don’t know what Rocket League is either then that is a skip.
Video 3: World’s Cheapest First Class Airplane Seat (Only $355)
This is one of these YouTube trends that to an outside user would be completely inane. Imagine relying just on the title of the video to make you want to click on it or not. Unless you’re really into Airline seats it’s hard to imagine why you’d click on this. This video has two different domains that drive traffic to it (it’s not the title) it’s the fact that the video has 6.5m views.
The bandwagon effective is powerful; folks seeing that a video has that many views may click just for that reason. In visual media I think this is an extremely important effect for content creators to keep in mind.
The second effect is the personality: Living Bobby. If you know who that is you may click on the video for no other reason than that.
Video 4: A Complete Fail at Getting Marijuana – Key & Peele
Here’s an interesting title. If you know who Key & Peele are that is probably reason enough to click on the video (see above personality effect) and it also has a lot of views (2.7m). The Title alone though is intriguing and talks about a divisive topic (marijuana) So even without the thumbnail it is providing the user a great idea of what the content of the video is about.
Video 5: Playing Guitar on Omegle but I play Dubstep on Guitar
If you don’t know what Omegle is part of the power of the title is lost. However, even ignoring that if you know what Dubstep is and how it relates to guitar this may be a compelling video to click on. Otherwise the video primarily relies on our above two talked about effects: Personality & Bandwagon.
Video 6: Among Us: The MedBay Scan
To a user not familiar with the current popular video game Among Us, this title would be a skip as it doesn’t provide any sense of what the video would be about. It relies heavily on a trending topic to support a user understanding what it is.
Video 7: Fried Chicken KFC at Home
This is an extremely straightforward title for a video. Fried Chicken KFC at Home. However, it suffers from one problem. It stratifies the meaning of the video from the thumbnail to the Title. That is the thumbnail clarifies that it really is “MAKING Fried Chicken at Home” and not just… Fried Chicken at home… maybe they’re just eating it? Who knows.
Video 8: If people lagged in real life. (compilation)
The thumbnail is goofy in this one. Removing that. The concept is interesting if you know what “lag” means and the added (compilation) lets you know what type of video it is. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.
So What Should Content Creators Do to Manage: Clear Purpose?
A few things to help content creators (specifically video) manage Purpose expectations.
Many creators want to be creative with their titles and use them as a way of drawing people into the their video. However, it is important to remember that context is everything. So the more obscure you make a title the less powerful it is.
For new users or users outside of the topical context having an obscure (but clever) title will not help them understand the purpose or aim of your video.
You can still be creative… but keep it clear what is happening! Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Keep it pithy.
This is a common tactic that some people use often called “click-bait”. Rather than tricking users into clicking on your video you should instead provide a very clear idea of what they can expect. Tricking users into clicking will only decrease perception and trustworthiness.
Be Careful of Special Characters or Emotes
Common on platforms like Twitch is to include random special characters or emotes in the Titles to draw a user’s eye in the sea of streams. But be careful. This loses all effect on users using assistive technologies and actually makes their navigation even more difficult.
I love Tags. Sites like Twitch uses them but it relies on streamers to set them so remember to set them! These provide quick clear description of what in general to expect from your stream or video and what the general genre is. For someone browsing through topics this allows organization but also allows them to quickly assess if they are interested or not just from the tag topics.
Not only that! Tags also help orient in terms of if someone didn’t know what a specific title is… say Among Us. But you see in the tag that it is a Multiplayer Game and it also is a Strategy and Survival game. That gives a lot of important context! I can relate that to other past experiences I’ve had with those types of genres!
Having a clear purpose is important in multiple areas. You want a clear purpose just in general for your site or content from both the platform level, but is even more important down at a specific content level. We talked about video content specifically here and this shows the importance of how a content creator develops things like thumbnails, video titles, and descriptions. Without any context it makes it impossible for a user to discern the purpose of the content they may be about to click on. Keep it clear, keep it simple, and keep it relatable!