Why accessible communications are essential in a time of crisis

Criticised for how it initially handled the UK outbreak of COVID-19, the Government has set the standard for accessible communications. Hilary Stephenson, managing director at user experience (UX) design agency, Sigma explains.

Following initial criticism of its communications strategy for the unfolding coronavirus crisis, Downing Street improved accessibility by launching daily televised briefings to complement an array of online, accessible communications through social media and the gov.uk website.

Ensuring that accessible communications reach their intended audience, and can be understood clearly and comprehensively by that audience – is never more important than at such times of crisis. What, then, are the principles which should guide government communications as it seeks to keep the public informed of the unfolding coronavirus outbreak and actions that individuals and organisations should be undertaking?

Online accessible communications and UX: understanding excellence

Top-quality accessible communications and user experience (UX) should follow several key principles. The starting point, always, should be integrity. And this applies across any sector, not just government communications. Accessibility includes being honest, always. It also means avoiding any misleading messaging or hidden extras which are likely to be accidentally ignored or misinterpreted.

Another key principle is that of clarity – that is, ensuring that the most important messages are the most noticeable, and are communicated using concise, jargon-free language and accommodating different reading levels and linguistic abilities. That is something which needs to run through both speech and written text. As key messages change – and at a time of crisis, they are likely to do so regularly and in potentially significant ways – it is vital that all messaging is updated simultaneously.


Next, it is important to think about perceivability – that is, ensuring that all communications are tailored to be perceivable for individuals with a wide range of visual and aural impairments, and differences in cognition and learning. This includes principles such as describing images via alternative text and enabling subtitles on videos – something which can generally be automated relatively simply. It involves thinking carefully about choices in terms of colour, font and the arrangement of text and images, and setting up audio descriptions and transcripts.

Users should be able to enlarge text and view it on a variety of different devices, and when they do this, layout breaks should be maintained. In terms of mobile responsiveness, websites should automatically detect which device they are being viewed on and adjust themselves accordingly. Content should also be equally accessible if JavaScript or images are switched off or unsupported.

Usability and navigability of online tools and sites need to be considered carefully. What journeys are users like to take through particular content? What questions are likely to arise on one page, which need to be answered elsewhere? When a search function is provided to hunt out specific content, results will typically need to be filtered according to key characteristics; the clearer and easier such functions are to use, the better.

Principles for now

So those are some principles of accessibility and positive UX in general. How should they be applied now?

When circumstances are constantly changing and vast amounts of highly complex data are being analysed behind the scenes to inform a response, there are enormous challenges in how to communicate the most salient information to the public promptly. But many of the principles from above can be applied relatively easily.

All Government updates should be centralised within gov.UK (https://www.gov.uk) and laid out according to those fundamental principles of accessible design – large fonts, high enough colour contrast, and with audio descriptions enabled. It has been great to see sign language interpretation now appearing alongside the daily television broadcast – this should, of course, continue, with interpreters at all press conferences. Auto-captioning software should be used across videos and infographics.

As updates and advice change, all areas of gov.uk must be updated simultaneously. Leaving out-of-date information in some places but not others is a recipe of confusion and panic. Similarly, where user journeys advise people to click through to a different page to learn about a specific area, that second page must deliver the information promised.

Ditch the jargon

Language must be clear, concise, and jargon-free, with simple explanations of the more complex scientific principles. And of course, paywalls and off-the-record briefings are to be avoided. This is not the time for perpetuating the impression that some communications are only reserved for certain audiences. The BBC’s role as a national broadcaster will truly come to the fore over the weeks and months ahead.

The most important accessibility principle remains; the Government must communicate through this crisis with absolute integrity. Unprecedented times call for unusual measures – and yet the principles of how to deliver accessible communications – communications that everyone can access and understand – hold true throughout.


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