Friday, 20 August 2010

Access to grind

Increasingly we have been working with many of our clients to help them transfer their print materials into an appropriate digital format. As print becomes more of a unique medium it will still have its place in marketing strategy, helping with standout and differentiation which is still key, but digital can offer so much more if managed and implemented well.

Through research, advice and implementation of our digital strategies we have gained knowledge and experience. We have ensured standout and analytics, plus action based on related activity reports, has helped some of our clients to achieve a significant increase in readership, take-up and awareness of their offering.

As part of this communications change management, digital 'accessibility' is becoming an important growth area for our business and should be for all businesses. We all need to be thinking beyond just ticking the compliance box.

At its most basic, and not going into detailed website compliance, nearly all of our clients see PDFs as a quick and low cost way of converting their print to a digital format that all can access through the web or via email. True, PDFs are probably one of the widest used formats, and reader software is free. They enable people to share information in the way they intended, and the higher end Adobe Acrobat Pro gives some fantastic additional functionality and innovation. But how does this all work when you think of the new regulations and laws being actively enforced to ensure all content is fully accessible for all?

For some time we have been producing interactive PDFs and had moved on to developing these as accessible through basic tags and the Acrobat 'read out loud' feature. There is a plethora of information out there but as Adobe has such a large user base we, like many others, thought that this was all that was required to create a compliant accessible PDF.

However, as we have discovered, this is only the entry level for this area of accessible communication. We believe there are two key issues. The first is content and the second is technology, but I stand ready to be enlightened by any who know more on the second.

From a content perspective, you can structure how a PDF is 'read out loud' or made accessible for those with visual impairment, but does the final document truly convey the messages that someone, who can see the tables and graphs, would have access too? This issue needs to be addressed at content stage. Merely reading out tables or headings and captions of graphics is not enough. The text should be written in such a way that it explains the graphics for this wider audience. After all, the graphics are often there to support and help people speed read a document, often skipping the text. So expanding on the text to help the visually impaired, or even helping those that may not fully understand what you are trying to convey, should not be an issue, but rather a benefit for your audience.

The second issue is the technology. Like I've said, using and perceiving Adobe as the industry standard meant that we didn't test further than the this format. But there are issues with how these PDFs are then converted or used and read on the proprietary software and systems that are used by people with visual impairment to access websites and related content  (eg Text Braille, Jaws or Window Eyes). To truly test these PDFs, companies need to either invest in these systems or partner with companies who have them so they can test the accessibility. We have been working with one client, the EPSRC, who have this software, and have discovered anomalies that mean the read order is completely changed when you convert from an Adobe PDF to JAWS. The read out feature jumps around so you could start on the back page and the user would therefore be thoroughly confused. This issue is addressable but requires deeper understanding and training on the software to ensure the PDF is compliant with these different formats.

Our experience has shown that it is better to work on accessibility in the original programmes pre the PDF conversion stage. All of the content should be planned for the wider audience and then made accessible in programmes such as word, powerpoint, indesign or quark.

Without the help of the EPSRC we would have been unaware of these issues and believe many others may still be unaware, clicking a few buttons in acrobat and thinking they have an accessible PDF. This could mean that content currently in the digital arena isn't accessible and at a time when you really want to be seen to be transparent, helpful and accessible, you need to make sure you are fully compliant.

I have added a few extracts and some useful links but there's a lot of reading here so if you'd like some help or advice with the accessibility side of your communications, do get in touch with us. There are many business benefits to having accessible websites and content so it makes sense to ensure you are accessible to all.


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