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The far reach of simple messages

blind folded laptop userThe difference in the way sighted and blind people experience technology is the key to designing accessible and usable resources.

It is tempting to deal with issues like access and usability separately, when they are actually complementary.

If you start with material that is clear, concise, easy to navigate and is written in plain English, this goes a long way towards making it accessible to all and usable by everyone.

To understand this fully, you need to analyse the difference in the way people look at screens and paper documents, and take into account how disability affects your experience of technology.

Sighted people have butterfly minds when it comes to reading a screen. Research has shown that on screen most people only read the first three words of an article to see if it catches their interest.

And when graphics, pictures, sound and words are competing for our attention on a screen, it tends to jump around, too.

However, when reading a paper document, people tend to sit tight and read every word.

Blind or partially sighted people using a screen reader don’t have the chance to jump around. They are given one piece of information at a time.

Although that means they do not look at a number of things on screen and think about the relationship between them, they will be focused fully on the material they receive, which helps learning.

Now that your educational resources might go to a dozen different devices, simple is better. Mobile phones, for example, have a small screen and short paragraphs of focused text are most likely to come across clearly to those with and without a disability.

When planning a new product, people will often ask, how many people with sight problems will be using this? Is it worth bothering to modify the design for them?

This is the wrong way around. If you think about making the material as clear and simple as possible, and available in bite-seized chunks for easy digestion, you have gone a long way towards making it accessible and usable, however it is delivered.

As we look to a future where people are as likely to get their essay material as a text message, a voicemail, or a Blackberry routed email as on a computer screen with graphics and complicated elements, less is more.

Being democratic about design so that the greatest number can access and use it should come as second nature.

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