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Understandable: Create an intuitive experience

Illustration of how content can be represented, conveyed, and translated on a variety of devices

With understandable content your learners can focus more of their effort on understanding the information rather than on working around barriers in the design. The content will be intuitive and behave in a predictable way for them. You can also support understanding through the use of language that is appropriate for your audience’s reading level, as well by including explanations of new or unfamiliar content and features (acronyms and abbreviations, subject-specific jargon and idioms).  This will make your content more accessible not only to learners who have cognitive or learning challenges, but also to learners with limited English proficiency. The W3C video entitled Understandable Content examines the importance of plain language and clear design in more detail.

To make your content understandable:

  • Provide clear directions.
  • Aim for consistency.
  • Use plain language.
  • Identify the language.

Provide clear directions

Before learners are asked to respond, make sure you provide clear directions for what is expected in their answers: length requirements, citation formats, and so on. Whenever possible, link to a rubric (and an exemplar if one is available) to help clarify expectations. Finally, review your directions to make sure they don’t rely on sensory characteristics such as color, shape, position or size. Not all of your readers may be able to perceive these characteristics, and the directions will not make sense to them if that is the case.

An example would be asking the reader to “review the passage to the right before answering the question.” A screen reader would not inform the reader of the location of the passage on the page, and the reader could be confused as to which passage the question references. It would be better to instruct the reader to “review the passage labeled ‘Theory of Thermal Equilibrium’ before answering the question.” The label would provide an additional cue that does not rely on sensory characteristics.

Aim for consistency

Consistency, in both the structure and formatting of the information, can help your learners understand how the content works. Conventions can also aid with usability. One example of a convention that is familiar to most learners is the use of underlining to indicate hyperlinked content. Underlining content that is not meant to be a hyperlink (or vice versa, removing the underline from hyperlinks) may prove confusing.

If the content includes recurring features that are unique to it, consider including a “how to use this resource” section at the beginning that explains the meaning of special icons and other unique features. This will enhance usability for all your learners.

Use plain language

Use language that is appropriate for the reading level of your audience to make the content easier to understand. Sites such as Hemingway Editor will help you identify the reading level of your content. They will also suggest simpler, shorter sentences. To help those who are new to the topic, either provide a glossary at the end or link to online definitions of unusual words or phrases. This includes jargon and idioms that may be unfamiliar to some readers. Also, expand acronyms and abbreviations the first time they are used.

Identify the language

Identifying the language will help screen readers select the correct voice and pronunciation rules. This is especially important if the content includes more than one language, as listening to the foreign language content with the wrong voice can be confusing. The University of Washington has created a tutorial on how to identify the language for a document or its parts

Build your skills

Learn about plain language:

Get to know the guidelines

The techniques on this page are also summarized in a table with the corresponding Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for your reference.

Technique Benefits Learners Who Are Relevant WCAG Guidelines
Provide clear directions Have learning or cognitive disabilities 3.3.2 Labels or Instructions (A); 1.3.3 Sensory Characteristics (A)
Follow conventions  Have cognitive disabilities 3.2.3 Consistent Navigation (A); 3.2.4 Consistent Identification (A)
Use plain language Have learning disabilities 3.1.3 Unusual Words (AAA); 3.1.4 Abbreviations (AAA); 3.1.5 Reading Level (AAA)
Indicate the document language Blind or have learning disabilities and use text to speech 3.1.1 Language of Page (A); 3.1.2 Language of Parts (AA)
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