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Creating a collaborative and evidenced content style guide

Lizzie Bruce • 3 minutes

Imagine an open wiki with universal guidelines for inclusive content style.

Evidenced, and iteratively updated. Well for the last 10 weeks I’ve been working on Sarah Richards’ collaborative Readability Guidelines project to achieve just that.

It’s ambitious and it’s exciting. Content professionals across the globe have been getting together for regular chats about punctuation and screen readers, audience labels and assumptions, plain language and specialist content.

The goal is to find evidence for a set of universal style guidelines for content design that’s fully inclusive. The strategy was to involve as many content, usability, accessibility and other digital professionals as possible in searching for answers to usability questions identified during the previous phase of the project.

A collaborative, global approach

410 cross-sector professionals in 17 time zones joined the Readability Guidelines Slack workspace. Contributors are based in New Zealand, Canada, USA, Spain, Ireland, Scotland and England. Our volunteer super-contributors led weekly research discussion sessions of up to 3 topics.

We referenced evidence from inclusive design focused organisations including GDS, RNIB, Scope and Nielsen Norman Group. We asked some of our Readability Guidelines questions at the London Accessibility Meetup, and we’re approaching the Digital Accessibility Centre. We looked at academic linguistic studies dating back to the 1970s.

The usability questions

We analysed the discussions from Readability Guidelines Alpha discussions held earlier this year. These are a selection of the questions we wanted to find evidence-based answers for. Altogether there were about 20 specific topics.

  • Can we identify any abbreviations and acronyms that are universally recognised?
  • Do ampersands help or hinder readability of navigation, titles and names?
  • Do positive and possessive contractions cause issues for people with dyslexia, poor vision and learning difficulties (in the same way that negative contractions do)?
  • Can we comprehensively compare screen readers treatment of punctuation that conveys meaning or adds nuance, like dashes and brackets?
  • Does having a link mid-sentence impair readability?
  • Are “we” and “you” organisation and audience labels confusing?
  • How do we write about people respectfully and inclusively?

Findings

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be updating the public wiki to reflect all the learnings from Beta. You can read about our findings along the way in our project updates. Here are some examples of guidance evidenced by the project:

  • Use simple sentences: complex sentences take more brain power to process, make readability more difficult for low literacy level users and are harder to translate.
  • Avoid capitalising words: people are more used to reading lowercase letters so comprehension is slower for capitalised words.
  • Keep link text to the end of the sentence whenever possible: this reduces cognitive load and can work better for users with autism.
  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms except where users know them better in abbreviated form, for example GIF and 5KB. This reduces user confusion.
  • Avoid referencing gender or age: it’s generally not necessary and can easily make your content non-inclusive.
  • Choose respectful vocabulary: research what language could be emotive for your users by exploring forums, blogs and social media, and carrying out user testing.

We also discovered that readability best practices, like using plain, simple language, short sentences, active tense, good grammar and accurate punctuation, improves ease of translation for localisation of content.

Next steps

We’ll look at what’s been sufficiently evidenced in Beta – and see what still needs usability testing.

We know Scope and the Digital Accessibility Centre have carried out inclusive design usability testing recently and we’re keen to swop notes with them, so that we’ve got the most up-to-date evidence sources. We also want to speak with RNIB and will be dropping in on WebAIM content style discussions.

Usability testing

When we know what’s outstanding, and are sure we’re not duplicating anything, we’ll plan user testing for the readability questions which carry most impact. Funding will come from Content Design London and any grants we successfully apply to.

Continuing the conversation

No topics are “closed” and the wiki itself is iterative by design. The Slack discussion channels – about 23 – are staying open. You can still join the Slack workspace. We’re encouraging people to keep commenting and sharing evidence there and on the wiki.

Collaborating further

If your organisation is carrying out any user testing relevant to the Readability Guidelines topics and questions – from which they would be happy to publicly share findings – please do share these in the content testing channel.

Reflections

I’ve worked on national charity and UK government content and campaigns and enjoy “making a difference” through the projects I am involved in. However, the universal, inclusive design aims of this project and the international collaboration have made this project feel particularly valuable, exciting and special.

We’ve been able to move forward in Beta because of our super-contributors and contributors, who’ve researched topics, led and taken part in discussions. Sometimes you read an organiser saying “we couldn’t have done it without you” and you think, really? But in this case, it’s absolutely true.

Please keep the Readability Guidelines project in mind. If you have a comment you want to make or you know of a past or present usability study that may help answer our readability questions, do join us.

Using the guidelines

The Readability Guidelines are made to be used. You can access them on the public wiki. As with other best practice guidance, absorb them and apply them to your content design.

The wiki is iterative and relies on collaboration to stay current and up to date. Guidance is organised by topic and each has an evidence section and a discussion page. Please add evidence for any updates you make to the guidance and give reasons for your edits on the discussion page so that everyone can understand the changes.

Joining in

There are several ways to collaborate on the Readability Guidelines. Here are a few things you can do to get involved:

Creating a collaborative and evidenced content style guide

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About the Author

Lizzie Bruce

Content consultant, Content Design London

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