ArticleUser Accessibility in Technical Documentation

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If you could effortlessly read the stats and comprehend the design on our blog banner, you obviously do not fall under the purview of the cited data. You probably have not had to use the screen reader, speech recognition, and many other such features created to offer user accessibility. But when a huge percentage of the world population experiences temporary or permanent disability, it rightfully evokes the question of how to re-envision the bar for accessibility.

So when it comes to creating user assistance/documentation—which literally guides the end-users in their application uptake and engages them by providing pivotal information woven into the technology they aim to use—you must imbibe the framework and standards of user accessibility in technical documentation. When you develop and offer a product or service, you naturally develop it for every kind of user. So, your product and services must reflect empathy and understandability toward users in the form of accessibility modifications.

For example: What if a user guide on accessing an application includes several screenshots with no alt text whatsoever; how do you suppose a potential user with a visual disability, such as near or distance vision impairment, would be able to understand the guidance and navigate the application? They wouldn’t be!

So, let’s start by understanding the meaning of user accessibility in technical documentation.

 

Defining User Accessibility in Technical Documentation

Creating technical documentation in a manner that allows it to be easily searched, reached, understood, and downloaded is what gives it user accessibility. As technical writing becomes more important in today’s internet-dependent world, we must reduce its complexity and increase its usability.

But Why are Usability and Accessibility Important in Technical Writing

Technical writing is designed to help non-technical people understand and implement the right way to perform a number of actions. Tech writers already know their audience probably won’t have the background to understand jargon or highly complicated concepts. This makes simplification of content a very important step while documenting a functionality or architecture of a product/solution.

But when it comes to documenting by keeping usability and accessibility at its core, the story is a bit different. No doubt jargon-free, easy-to-understand, and other such keywords define the agenda of a technical writer. However, a documentation user can have visual, motor, auditory, speech, or cognitive disabilities. And, you cannot neglect your responsibility to ensure that every user gets access to your content regardless of their disability. You must cater to their special needs.

Assistive technologies, such as reading or hearing solutions, are helping differently-abled by providing enhancements to, or changing methods of interacting with the technology, and enriching their experience. So, when you work on technical writing projects, you must ensure that what you curate can help the end-user in all capacities and complement the assistive technology.

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Usability vs Accessibility

As you can probably tell by now, there’s a difference between a technical document being usable and accessible. Usability refers to simplifying information so your readers can follow the directions and perform the actions to solve their problems. For example, creating a guide to maintain a car battery with easy-to-understand instructions that even a novice can follow. Or, avoiding walls of text and creating smaller paragraphs to increase the scannability of the document as well.

Accessibility refers to the act of making the technical document easy to access, comprehend, and retain by each and every user of the society regardless of their capabilities, situations, and disabilities. When we create technical documents with greater user accessibility, we follow the best practices of the trade. For example, creating documentation that consists of descriptive and informative page titles, headings, and labels.

 

Document Accessibility Standards

To make a technical document more user accessible, use descriptive headings that clearly state the content of the page. Also, utilise subheads in the content for easy identification of relevant information. Keep the heading hierarchy in mind for both content and format, i.e., it should follow the right information flow and use the correct headers and font size.

Links are a helpful way of increasing user accessibility of a technical document. However, be sure to only include them if they are relevant and useful. It’s a good idea to let the readers decide if they want a link to open a new tab or remain on the same one. When a link takes a reader to a new domain, you can use an external link icon to indicate the same.

For the content itself, user accessibility can be enhanced by creating shorter sentences and using lists/bullet points wherever possible. Each document should follow parallel writing structures so readers can gain a sense of familiarity. It’s better to keep the language positive rather than negative. For example, it’s better to write “Once you’ve done X, you can do Y” rather than “If you don’t do X, you won’t be able to do Y”.

If you’re using images in your technical document, you can improve user accessibility by providing alt text to summarize the image. If the image contains any information, it should also be provided in the text. For any videos, provide captions or transcripts of the audio and video content. Avoid using flickering and flashing elements in your videos.

 

A Short Checklist for User Accessibility

– Add interactive elements like arrows that expand and collapse sections for easier navigation.

– Avoid ableist language. Use inclusive language.

– Make all tabs, buttons, and interactive elements easy to reach and click.

– Keep the fonts and colours simple.

– Some screen readers don’t read punctuation marks, so ensure your sentences can be understood without punctuation.

– Define acronyms and abbreviations when they’re introduced.

– The document should be searchable.

– Any databases should be searchable.

– File names should be clear and to-the-point.

– Tables should be optimized, placed correctly, and marked with headers.

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Smriti
Author
June, 2022