Simply ensuring that your Website is accessible to screen reader users is, unfortunately, not enough to guarantee that these users can find what they’re looking for in a reasonably quick and efficient manner. Even if your site is accessible to screen reader users, its usability could be so poor that they needn’t have bothered stooping by in the first place.
Fortunately, there are plenty of simple-to-implement guidelines that you can follow. The seven easy tips below will drastically improve a site’s usability for screen reader users, as well as all other visitors.
Tip 1: Use Descriptive Headings
The use of on-page headings is one of the most important usability features for screen reader users, as it helps these people more easily understand the page structure. Although text on the page may display as a heading to sighted users, it must actually be labeled as such within the HTML code in order for screen reader users to know it’s a heading.
Screen readers don’t look at Web pages: they read HTML code. If a piece of text is identified as a heading within the HTML code, the screen reader will announce that it’s a heading. If not, screen reader users won’t be able to tell your headings from the rest of your text.
There’s another, less obvious usability benefit of using proper heading tags: screen reader users have the ability to call up a list of on-page headings, and jump to the section of the page in which they’re most interested. If your page is properly marked-up, screen reader users will find it much easier to navigate than a page that doesn’t use the correct tags. Here’s what this headings box for the BBC homepage looks like in JAWS, one of the most popular screen readers:
This facility works in much the same way as the process that sighted Web users employ to scan through Web pages by glancing at headings. If headings are descriptive of the content that appears beneath them, it becomes far easier for screen reader users to find the information they need.
Tip 2: Write Descriptive Link Text
Screen reader users can browse Web pages by calling up a list of on-page links, and activating the link in which they’re most interested. As such, non-descriptive link text such as ‘click here’ should be avoided at all costs: it makes no sense whatsoever when taken out of context. Here’s what this links list dialog displays for the BBC homepage in JAWS:
The good news is that the use of descriptive link texts provides usability benefits for everyone. When sighted users scan through Web pages, one of the items that stands out is link text. The words ‘click here’ are totally meaningless to Web users scanning pages; we must hunt through surrounding text to discover the link destination.
Tip 3: Provide Information in Lists
The use of lists within HTML code is extremely useful for screen reader users, as screen readers announce the number of items in each list before reading out the list items. This helps these users know what to expect when hearing a list of items (such as site navigation).
This facility works in much the same way as a phone answering machine that tells you how many messages you have before it plays them. Once you know how many messages you have, you know what to expect. If there’s only one or two messages, you can probably remember them; any more and you’ll probably want to get a pen and paper to make notes.
The use of lists (marked up with the
<li> tag) really just represents a behind-the-scenes change to the code; it needn’t affect the visual appearance of your site.
Tip 4: Employ Logical Linearization
Screen reader users generally have to listen to Web pages from start to finish, top to bottom, left to right. Sighted Web users, on the other hand, can glance through a Web page almost at random, spotting important information wherever it may appear on the page. Because of this, important information should always be placed towards the top of the page. So, when you’re creating a form, for example, make sure you avoid locating instructions on how to fill it out at the bottom of the page.
Placing important information towards the top of the page actually benefits everyone, as the important information is then provided "above the fold" — in a position where sighted and screen reader users find it first.
Tip 5: Apply Short, Succinct ALT Text
ALT text is the textual content alternative that’s provided for images on a site. ALT text is read out to screen reader users, so any Website that offers even basic accessibility will provide this alternative text. However, some sites try to over-explain the information conveyed by images, forcing screen reader users to have to listen to a lot of unnecessary and irrelevant information.
Screen reader users often take longer than sighted Web users to work through Websites, so help make their surfing time easier with succinct ALT text.
Tip 6: Write Short, Front-loaded Paragraphs
In a "front-loaded" paragraph, the conclusion comes first, followed by the what, why, when, where and how. By placing the conclusion first, you allow screen reader users to instantly gain an understanding of what the paragraph’s about. They can then decide whether they want to keep listening to that paragraph, or skip to the next one (which they can do easily with the screen reader). If the paragraphs are short, users can skip forward knowing that they won’t miss extra information.
Front-loading content obviously benefits all users, as your site visitors no longer have to search around to find the main point of each paragraph.
Tip 7: Write Descriptive Page Titles
The page title is the very first thing that screen reader users hear when they arrive at a Web page, so it’s essential that the title is descriptive of the page. Again, this benefits everyone: all visitors can use the page title to orientate themselves and confirm that they’re on the page they expect, or want, to be on. This is especially true for Web users with dial-up connections over which the page title displays a number of seconds before the rest of the content.
We’ve explored a number of relatively simple, painless steps that can be taken to improve a site’s usability for screen reader users. Fortunately, nearly all of them improve usability for all Web users, so everyone benefits! Make these changes to your sites, and your users will thank you.