Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!


Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

The four levels—discovery, acquisition, use, and comprehension" are organized as a funnel, with the "discovery" layer at the top. Above the funnel are the words "big picture." Below the funnel are the words "fine details." To the left of the funnel, an arrow pointing downward says "Using communications." To the right an arrow pointing upward is labelled "Creating communications."
Users move down the framework, funnelled from big picture to fine details: they first have to find a communication, then get it, use it, and understand it. Creators of communications move up the framework: they write the content, design it, disseminate it, and finally archive it.

A barrier at any one of these four levels will stop your message from getting through. Fortunately, there’s synergy among them: a practice that makes one level accessible can also increase accessibility at other levels.

A few caveats: This framework doesn’t address your content’s accuracy or quality or its relevance to your intended audience. It’s also meant to be more useful for information pull, where users actively seek out the knowledge you’re trying to communicate, rather than information push activities like marketing or promotion. Finally, I developed the framework for situations where issues like ownership, copyright, and revenue aren’t major concerns.

In other words, my recommendations won’t apply in all contexts. Entire fields are built around each of the areas I discuss, and you can delve arbitrarily deep into them, so for the sake of simplicity I’ll mention a few key points for each level, a handful of best practices, and some resources I’ve found helpful. I also offer some general accessibility best practices at the end. None of these lists are exhaustive.

Level 1: Discovery—can users find your communication?

Key points

  • Properly archiving your material for discoverability helps you reach not only your intended audience but audiences you never knew you had. You’ll give your communication a longer life if people can find it long after your initial promotional push. You’ll make it easier for you or others to find and reuse or repurpose the material later, saving time. Finally, sound archival practices help preserve institutional knowledge, which is helpful when there’s staff turnover.
  • Many communications fall under the category of grey literature, which isn’t formally indexed in databases and so is harder to discover.
  • People find information through intermediaries like search engines, librarians, and other knowledgeable professionals (health care providers for health information, for example).
  • Putting information online only doesn’t guarantee access: much of rural Canada still doesn’t have high-speed internet access, and some people don’t use the internet at all.

Some best practices

  • Consult a librarian or archivist who can advise you on the best way to organize and archive your communications for discoverability.
  • Consider where your users seek their information. Is your content available to the intermediaries your users consult?
  • Use the most common file formats for digital content, preferably open formats. Proprietary formats may become inaccessible if the company that owns it stops existing or stops supporting it.
  • Use common dissemination platforms for multimedia, like YouTube or Vimeo for videos. Make sure your metadata—title, description, tags/keywords, category/genre, etc.—is as complete as possible. Provide transcripts for all audio, captions for video, and alternative text (alt text) for images. Provide transcripts for any images of text, including for presentations in a video, for example. All of this metadata lets search engines find your content.
  • Use descriptive headings (properly styled as headings) along with well-organized, easy-to-read text, which will help search engines and increase usability (level 3) and comprehension (level 4).
  • Avoid password protecting your online content if you want search engines to discover it.


[Jump to level 1, level 2, level 3, or level 4]

Level 2: Acquisition—can users get your communication?

Key points

  • This level has been the focus of the Open Access movement, which argues that all academic publications should be available for free. A paywall on any content, academic or not, will limit accessibility. Most Open Access journals use some type of Creative Commons licensing, and, especially if you’re open to having others repurpose your content, you might consider doing the same.
  • Besides paywalls, non-cost barriers, like
    • mandatory user registration
    • required plug-ins or other specialized software, and
    • splash pages with no substantive function

    can all discourage people from getting to your content.

  • Rule of thumb: the more clicks it takes to get to your communication, the less accessible it is.

Some Best practices

  • Offer your content at no cost. Familiarize yourself with the six different types of Creative Commons licensing and the restrictions they impose on how your content can be used.
  • Minimize the number of clicks it takes for people to get to your content. Don’t force people to close ads or subscription windows to get what they want.
  • Many webinar platforms will ask users to download specialized software. Even if you offer a webinar on dedicated software, consider archiving it on a more accessible platform, such as on YouTube. Not only will that make it free to watch later on but will also allow it to be discovered (level 1), especially if you are diligent about filling in the metadata.


[Jump to level 1, level 2, level 3, or level 4]

Level 3: Use—can users use your communication?

Key points

I’ve divided this level into three main considerations, although they’re related:

  • design,
  • navigation, and
  • accommodations for people with disabilities.

Poor design—like a visually dense page with too little white space, type that’s too small, or too little contrast between background and text—hinder accessibility because they can turn users off before they even attempt to engage with your communication.


Just as users have to be able to find your communication (level 1), they also have to find what they need within it when they get it.

Being able to search an electronic document isn’t enough. Searching yields too much noise (bringing up results that aren’t relevant to the user’s interest) and isn’t comprehensive (not catching synonyms, for example).

An index is one of the most powerful tools to help reader navigate a document. Alphabetical indexes are considered such an aid to access that the Government of Australia requires them for all government annual reports.

Rule of thumb: the more places people have to look to find what they need, the lower the accessibility.

Accommodations for people with disabilities

These practices should more accurately be called “inclusive design” or “universal design.”

Ten percent of Canadians have a print disability; 10% of Canadians are culturally or linguistically Deaf. Many people with disabilities use assistive technology, like screen readers, to access content.

Although not considered a disability, red–green colourblindness affects 8% of males of Northern European descent. Inclusive design helps everyone: captions help people who can’t have the sound on when they watch a video; transcripts let readers skim instead of having to watch a video; alternative text on images helps people with a slower internet connection.

Some best practices

  • Present your content in digestible chunks.
  • Present a clear visual hierarchy to emphasize important information.
  • Give users enough contrast, whether it’s text on a background (black on white is usually best), sound volume and quality for audio, or lighting quality in a video.
  • Format links so that their function is clear.
  • Group related items in space (for example, in a print document) and time (for example, in an audio or video file).
  • Use meaningful headings and subheadings, and use these to build a table of contents.
  • Provide a table of contents and, for anything over 20 pages, a subject index.
Accommodations for people with disabilities (inclusive design)
  • For video and audio files, provide timestamped transcripts (and timecoding in the metadata). Consider also supplying a subject index for the transcript.
  • Provide alternative text (alt text) for all substantive images.
  • Don’t use colour as the only means of communicating information. View your visuals using a program like Color Oracle to simulate what people with colourblindness would see.
  • Have your text read by the most common screen readers to see if they render the information correctly.
  • If possible, provide reflowable text instead of, or in addition to, a fixed layout. If people have to enlarge the text to read it, making it reflowable means they can scroll in one direction only instead of the two they would need for fixed-layout content.


[Jump to level 1, level 2, level 3, or level 4]

Level 4: Comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Key points

  • A user’s comprehension of new information depends on their
    • working memory
    • vocabulary
    • prior knowledge, and
    • intrinsic and extrinsic motivation,

    among many other factors.

  • Health-related issues, including type-2 diabetes, acute coronary syndrome, chemotherapy, drug use, and brain injury can all affect cognition and comprehension.
  • Communicators can’t account for all situations that can limit comprehension, but being aware of possible ways a person can misunderstand and using plain language principles can increase the odds that the message will get through.
  • An image is rhetorically valuable only if users can interpret its meaning.
  • According to 2011 census data, 21 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home, and 20.6% of Canadians reported a language other than English or French as their mother tongue.
  • The quality of a translation depends heavily on the quality of the source text.
  • Rule of thumb: the higher the cognitive load—or mental effort—your communication demands, the lower the accessibility.
  • Using both text and images, or using both visuals and a narration, reduces cognitive load.

Some best practices

  • Use plain language. (For my posts on the topic, check out the plain language category.)
  • If you expect your audience to include people with low literacy, consider offering a narrated video of your information instead of, or in addition to, text.
  • If your audience would be better served by your content in another language, hire a professional translator to produce a translation.
  • Stick with common conventions that will be intuitive to users. For example, we expect red to mean stop and green to mean go. Flouting this convention forces users to think harder than they would otherwise need to, increasing their cognitive load.


[Jump to level 1, level 2, level 3, or level 4]

General accessibility best practices

  1. Consider culture

Cutting across all levels of accessibility is cultural competence—understanding the cultures within your audience and being able to communicate with them effectively. Here are some questions to ask about your users when considering culture:

  • Where do they look for information? What search terms would they use?
  • Under what circumstances would they be using your information? Would they be rushed or stressed?
  • What language would they most likely use?
  • What tone or what specific phrases might they find off-putting or offensive?
  • What kinds of metaphors—verbal or visual—would they find confusing?
  • Whose voices might be missing? Would they be interested in your content? How would you reach them?

The usability community often uses personas to make consider different users’ needs. Personas can be useful, but nothing is more effective than co-creating your communication with your users.

  1. Test, test, test

You can follow every accessibility checklist available, and you might still not be meeting your users’ needs. The only way to guarantee that your communication is accessible is if you test it with your intended users to make sure they can find, get, use, and understand it.

  1. Provide contact information

Give users a way to get in touch with you if they need your content in a different format or language, or if they’re looking for references.


My favourite anecdote about accessibility is this one:

This story shows that you can’t know the true size of your audience until you make your communication completely accessible. Although full accessibility should be the goal, don’t feel as though you need to tackle all aspects of accessibility at once: start by adopting some of the easier practices (like using plain language and filling in your metadata) and commit to adding more as you go along. That said, considering accessibility at the start of the project will almost always be easier and more cost effective than having to retrofit.

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