How might you change the content on your website if your audience was likely to view it while under great stress, in 90 seconds, on a mobile device, off the highway in a gas station bathroom?

Nonprofits helping domestic violence and sex trafficking survivors face this challenge. Questions they must ask about their content include:

  • Does this homepage image slow the site’s download speed too much?
  • Are the phone links one touch to call?
  • Is the text really easy to read when rushed and stressed?
  • Is the most relevant content absolutely unmissable?

Fortunately, the extra time spent meeting the needs of this particular audience likely also creates a better experience for everyone else who visits the website.

Think about the last time you pulled your luggage along behind you in a city or at an airport. You probably benefited from the mid-20th century urban planning innovation called “curb cuts.” Designed to help people in wheelchairs, these sidewalk ramps make life a little easier for so many other people. Parents avoid jostling sleeping babies in strollers, delivery people easily push their rolling carts, and travelers can smoothly wheel their bags to and from the sidewalk.

Just like curb cuts; if you make your content more accessible, you’ll benefit by reaching a wider audience than you probably realize.

If you make your content more accessible, you’ll reach a wider audience than you realize, writes @melissa_egg, via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Walking in your audience’s shoes

We care fervently about our content, but it may only be a small part of a (hopefully important) moment in the busy lives of others. Here are some ways to make those moments matter for more people.

Lower your expectations of your audience. I’ve conducted or watched hundreds of usability tests in my career in which I ask research participants to perform tasks on a website, app, or other digital system. It’s stunning how much people miss, skip, and/or ignore even when I’m PAYING THEM to complete the tasks while our team watches. Increasingly, our attention seems scattered even when we make an effort to focus.

Use the inverted pyramid style of writing to get important ideas out first in your copy. Choose easily understood graphics. Produce short, to-the-point videos.

Prioritize and provide extra care for special audiences. You should know which persona(s) your content is for and which persona group is your highest priority. When I worked on a domestic violence-related website, we always prioritized the survivors’ needs first. Yes, we hoped donors and others would get our messages too, but they were less important user groups.

Providing a trauma-informed website or reaching English as a second language learners requires more attention than normal. Think carefully about your audience. What is unique about them? What do they worry about? What language and words do they use among themselves? Are they marginalized in any way? This is where accurate, data-informed personas can help you remember goals, behaviors, mindsets, and context.

Ensure that everyone on the digital team understands the nuances of the audience. For example, a trauma-informed website would be very careful to avoid using potentially triggering photos or videos. An app catering to a large ESL population would not use idioms but more direct phrases. The more your team understands the audience and relevant context, the most likely your content will succeed.

Plan for everyone if necessary. If you work for the government or a hospital – or any other business serving the general public – you may be thinking, “But everyone is my audience.” You may find yourself needing to plan for a huge range of people and their needs.

Past thinking assumed that accommodating about 80% of your audience was sufficient. But that’s still one in five people turned away by your content. Will you tell the boss, or will I?

A more modern and inclusive approach suggests that if you cover your extreme cases, everyone will be taken care of. Again, your personas come into play here. Do you have a persona that represents the user group with poor vision or shaky hands or low technical understanding? Do you also have a persona for a young software engineer with high expectations? And can you keep both in mind as you develop content?

Content testing

How do you know if your content will reach its audience goals? Find representative members of the audience and test the content with them. This is an ideal way to discover how accessible your content really is.

Find people who are IN that audience group. You need to speak with people with representative goals and situations. If that’s impossible, you may have to use people as proxies who know the group well. It’s not ideal but testing with nearly anyone is better than not testing at all (but not coworkers).

Standard usability testing with tasks and questions related to content will tell you a ton. This is a perfect place to start with your website or app. You can also test a competitor’s content to offer you direction and avoid missteps.

Think of the questions you have about the content: “Will they understand this is for harried 40-something parents?” Then, craft tasks and questions to try to get at the answers: “Who do you think this is for?”

I once tested the functionality of a yoga studio website. (Example task: “Sign up for a class.”) I quickly discovered that my research participants felt intimidated by the images of fit and beautiful people all over the website.

Test whenever you have content. You can learn a great deal even when your content is quite rough. Your goal is to have no surprises – to avoid launching off-putting content that misses the mark. Learn early so you have time to adjust. This might mean printing text on a piece of paper and asking people to highlight sentences that aren’t clear. Perhaps show a photo you plan to use and ask what words come to mind. Are those the words you and your brand are hoping for? Ask relevant audience members to review the rough cut of a video before it is finalized.

Patterns can emerge after testing with only a few people in your audience. This isn’t the type of academic, peer-reviewed, quantitative research that requires statistical significance. Facebook, Microsoft, Lenovo, and many other organizations conduct qualitative research with small groups of people, so you can too.

Where to begin

According to recent U.S. Census data, more than 25% of the U.S. population lives with a disability. Even if you aren’t one of these people, consider how often you might not be functioning at 100% capacity. Think about exhausted parents, hungover coworkers, or people stuck in a hospital with a sick family member. What about anyone dealing with a terrible breakup or any of life’s other curve balls? Everyone functions poorly at times. Don’t make people work any harder than necessary to benefit from your content. They should be able to experience it with as little effort as possible in the way they want to.

“Everyone functions poorly at times.” Your content shouldn’t make people work harder than necessary, says @melissa_egg, via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Ask the right questions and remember the answers. Who are your audiences? What are their behaviors and goals? Do any of them have disabilities or special challenges? Why might they be interested in your content? What kind of experience are they looking for from you? To escape? To get smarter? To do something for themselves? It’s easy in the middle of a project to forget the main goals of your audience. Write them into any project brief and keep them on a highly visible whiteboard or sticky note.

Learn basic accessibility guidelines. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will help you understand the minor tweaks your content needs to be accessible to everyone in the audience, from video captions and audio to error messaging and use of color.

Need motivation? Run your website through a free screen reader. The first time a coworker and I did this for a computer e-commerce website, it was just awful. We wanted to cry in sympathy for any visually impaired person trying to buy a computer on our website. It motivated us to work on getting our company up to speed on accessibility. Note that Apple’s iOS and macOS have a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver you can test with (switch it on in system preferences) while Microsoft Windows includes a similar screen reader called Narrator.

Work accessibility into your process. Set expectations with your collaborators (designers, videographers, writers, etc.) that all content must be accessible. Insist on alt-descriptions on images – text within the HTML code so that screen readers can describe the image. Make sure captions and transcripts are part of the videographer’s work. Tell the designers when text doesn’t seem easily legible. Remember your colorblind viewers by ensuring color isn’t the only way you convey important information.

Talk to your developers to make sure they are coding in an accessible way. This includes things like unique labels for form elements, clickable phone numbers, and speed. Want a surefire way to improve the experience of your content? Speed up your content load times. Snappy websites and apps please all audiences.

In the United States, organizations that receive government funding and/or offer public accommodation may be required to have accessible websites. Recent court rulings indicate that the Americans with Disabilities Act can be applied to websites of private companies as well (see Gil vs. Winn-Dixie Stores Inc).

In the long run, accessible websites will become the standard. For now, being a leader on accessibility benefits you by broadening your reach to as many people as possible. Who doesn’t want more people consuming their content?

Unless stated, all tools mentioned in CCO are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team.