On this episode of Podcraft, I'm talking to Nicolas Steenhout from the A11Y Rules Podcast. Nicolas is an accessiblity evangelist, helping anyone he can to improve their online content's accesibility. I loved his top-line advice around the all-round benefits of being familiar with accessibility:
A little time spent learning the basics of accessibility can help not only impaired users, but every consumer of your content. Once you know, it becomes a habit, and you can save days and ££s by building accessiblity principles in from the start of any project.
First, we cover how to use transcripts to improve your accessibility for impaired users, while also gaining a whole bunch of benefits for ALL users at large. That includes being found more easily in search, and creating more easy to consume and more engaging content. Nicolas mentioned a case study from NPR where they started including transcripts with all of their podcast episodes. The saw big audience growth as a result, from that one change.
Next, we cover how to create more accessible shownotes pages. That includes techniques such as well structured headers, including alt tags on your images, and keeping language simple and clear.
Last, we delve into some tools you can use to make a WordPress site more accessible in general, and gain a lot of those search and engagement benefits at the same time. The first step in this is to make sure to find a theme that's ‘accessibility ready' and then use a plugin called WP Accessibility to add a standard set of enhancements.
If you want to see an example of a highly accessible Podcasting website, out Nicolas' show site at A11YRules.com which has been used as an official example by the Web Content Accessbility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1). Well worth a look!
- NPR Case study – showing the growth possible from transcript use
- Trint.com – an automated transcription service
- Rev.com – the paid transcription service we use
- WP Accessibility – WordPress plugin by Joe Dolson
- Tenon.io – An accessiblity tool that Nicolas recommends starting with
More About Nicolas
Nicolas Steenhout offers real-world insight into accessibility issues.
His work began in the mid-'90s. As a developer, he was confronted by accessibility hurdles that were preventing those with disabilities from engaging with a technological revolution.
As he began championing web accessibility, Nic transitioned into the non-profit sector where he collaborated with people with a wide variety of impairments.
Today, Nic works as an independent consultant for private businesses and non-profits. Having lent his services on three continents, he’s engaged with thousands of individuals with disabilities. He blogs about accessibility at incl.ca and he hosts the A11y Rules Podcast at a11yrules.com
Colin Gray: Hey folks, and welcome to another episode of Podcraft. This is the show about everything podcasting to launching your show to monetization, and everything in between. I'm your host, Colin Grey, as always, and this time around we've got a good interview going on, which is around something that I've intended to cover for a while, which is accessibility. And I've been intending to cover it for a while thanks to some prompts from my wonderful guest today who is Nic Steenhout. How are you doing, Nick?
Nic Steenhout: I'm doing pretty good, Colin. Thanks for having me on the show.
Colin Gray: Good, good. Well I'll say thanks to you, as well, in return for prompting me around this stuff because I … I think I may have mentioned on Twitter, I used to work in the public sector and working with universities and stuff like that, and accessibility was always a huge consideration when we were working with the technology that I used to use to teach students and stuff like that. But I have to admit, it's not something I've considered enough in what we do now, especially around podcasting area. So it's good to have you on just to chat about podcast accessibility in general.
Nic Steenhout: Yeah. I think it's something that's not really on people's radar screen because it's out of our realm of experience in general. But when we start understanding the importance and the impact, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore it.
Colin Gray: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, there are so many aspects to it as well, I think, isn't there? Because we're not just recording audio, but we're having to create web pages that go along with them and everything. So it would be great … Yeah, let's dive into it then. So I'm going to … I'm coming at this from a total novice point of view here. So with the podcast itself … So we do our audio recording. We have our chat. We have our conversation. Normally what we do is we take that, we post that out onto the web, and we create a little show notes text page to go along with it. Where do you start when you're starting to advise people on how to go about making all of this more accessible? Where's the first step?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah, I'm gonna take it one step before that actually, because I think it's important for people to understand a couple of things about accessibility. The first thing is that on average, in the western world, there's about 20% of people that have reported one disability or another. So we're talking about one in five people that have accessibility needs. And the other aspect to that is that it's not just about accessibility. We can increase all kinds of aspects to our show. There was a case study done that the show This American Life by NPR, they decided to provide transcripts for all their shows, and suddenly they saw they had an indexed, searchable facility for all their shows so they could find content easy. They had an increase, I think it's something like eight percent increase in the search on search results, on Google, because suddenly all their shows were available. So accessibility is good for, obviously, people with disabilities. That's the primary target. But it's also good for the show hosts and for increasing traffic and making life easier. There's always this guy that wants to listen to a podcast at lunch in his cubicle, but he doesn't necessarily want to share that with people. So if there's a transcript, they can get to it easy. So there's all kinds of aspects
Colin Gray: Excellent. That's good stuff. Yeah, good to justify it in the first place and give us another reason for it too.
Nic Steenhout: So, going back to your question, I think there's two main areas that we have to think about. Is the audio or video file itself, if you do video podcasting. And there's two main criteria. The first thing is if it's an audio show, you want to provide a transcript. And if it's a video, you want to create captions. And there's easy ways. If you create a transcript then you can use YouTube to use that to do the timing on the captions. But we can get into the nitty gritty of how to do these in a little bit.
Nic Steenhout: The other aspect, as you said, is the site itself. I have a lot of friends that are blind that really consume a lot of podcasts, but one of their main gripes is that they get to website and they can't get through the site to access the podcast at all. So they would like to listen to a podcast, they would like to consume your information, but there's just no way to get to it.
Colin Gray: Okay. So transcripts seem to me … Is that the kind of easy first win for people? Just to start actually doing transcripts in some way?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah. I think transcripts are the first and easiest way to go about making your podcast accessible to people. There's three main ways to create transcripts, and it goes from cheap and really painful to expensive and really easy. So obviously the first way is to do the transcript yourself, and there's a variety of tools out there that are free that allow you to do the transcription fairly straightforward, but it's time consuming. When I do my own transcript, even though I'm used to it, it can take me easy two, three times the amount of audio time to actually transcribe properly. So it can be quite time consuming.
Nic Steenhout: The second part would be to purchase the service of automatic transcription. And there's all kinds of service but you can find it from about 10 cents per minute, US. There's a high error rate for that and by high it might be maybe 85%, 87% accurate, which still means that 1 word in 10 is actually incorrect, and that can really change the meaning quite a bit and lead to … Into what's going on.
Nic Steenhout: And finally the last bit is to purchase human transcription. The service I'm using is costing me about one dollar US per minute. So it's not super expensive, but it's an expense that's there. I do it systematically for my podcasts because it's a question of principle for me. But I also realise all the benefits of it.
Colin Gray: Yeah, indeed. So we've tried both the automated and the professional one, I suppose. The one we use … I don't know about yourself, but we've used Rev. Rev's our usual, professional one. That's the one dollar a minute system that we use more often than not. Always great. I mean, it barely needs editing usually. That's brilliant.
Colin Gray: And the one we tried automatic, I think we chatted about this on Twitter, was Trint. So T-R-I-N-T. They're a decent automated one. And you're right. They claim to have, I remember seeing that, they claim to have like 85 to 90% accuracy. And I was like, “That seems good. That's quite high.” But you're absolutely right. If it means that there's a word wrong in every single sentence, and you're doing 2,000 words, that's a lot of editing to get that fixed.
Nic Steenhout: For what it's worth, I use Rev. I love Rev. I do have to do a bit of editing but that's because the topic of my podcast, accessibility, ends up being quite technical. So it can be interesting from that perspective.
Colin Gray: Yes, yes. How do you find it with a non-US accent? Because I find Trint is a lot less accurate for me than it probably is for your average US speaker.
Nic Steenhout: Yeah. Automated transcription for non-US accents is probably tricky. I lived in New Zealand for nearly 15 years and I had issues with audio files that automated that way. Rev, I've thrown people that were Japanese speakers, Australians, Canadians, French, all with interesting accents, but it's not been a problem.
Colin Gray: Okay. Still works well enough, yeah.
Colin Gray: So how would you recommend putting the transcript out there then? Where would you include it and do you think sometimes … Would you use it to replace the show notes or is that an addition to that? What's your general recommendations?
Nic Steenhout: Okay. There's generally three main ways that people put podcasts in. The first one is they do a PDF and they link the PDF to the show, and that's a problem because 9 times out of 10 the PDF itself is not accessible. So someone can't actually use, for example, a screen reader application to actually access the content.
Nic Steenhout: The other way is to put it in text or HTML on a separate page from the podcast show, with a link to it, which is an accessible method but then you start losing the advantage of SEO because the content is not directly linked.
Nic Steenhout: And my favourite approach is to put the transcript directly on the page where you're displaying the podcast, and that makes it easy to find and it's right there for search engines as well.
Nic Steenhout: As for show notes, I think show notes are a great thing and they're really an addition to transcript, because you're not consuming that content the same way. The transcript is really a way to access the show itself. Whereas, the show notes is a way to identify what's most important or something that the host actually wants to highlight. The show notes is also a great method for people with cognitive impairments to access the content. So they don't have to struggle to try to understand an entire half hour show or trying to read, maybe, 3,000 words transcript. So I think both the show notes and the transcripts have an important role to play from an accessibility perspective.
Colin Gray: Great. Yeah, I think it's good to hear you say that because I totally agree. I think that a show notes is a different … It serves a different purpose, doesn't it? The show notes, for me, is a … It's written for the written word, as opposed to a written version of the spoken word. So that you can read it. Quite often I find that show notes are for people who revisit the content, actually, or pre-listening to the content they'll go in there, they're find it through SEO, through search, they'll read it through, they'll get an idea of what you're gonna talk about, but they'll go to the podcast actually to get the engaging content, like you say.
Colin Gray: And the way we've done transcripts, I think … The way I find that works best … Maybe you're gonna tell me this doesn't work very well, but I suppose the basic version is you have the show notes and then you have, “Here's the transcript,” below it. And that should be presumably accessible because it's all there on the main page. But one tool that we've used in the past to make it that … The show notes page is quite neat and there's a little expansion box that has the transcript in it, and it's a tool called visual composer that works in WordPress that can do that, and it's an expansion box. And I think, from looking at it, that it's accessible enough, because it's not hiding it. But tell me if you have any experience with that. Do tools like that that can hide away a 2,000 word transcript, can they impair the accessibility of a page?
Nic Steenhout: It really depends on the tool itself and how it's coded.
Colin Gray: It does. Yeah.
Nic Steenhout: Because the ability to collapse or expand content can be very useful. You have to look at a couple different things. The first thing is, can you actually trigger the expansion with the keyboard only? Because there's a lot of people that aren't actually able to use a mouse. So if your ability to expand the content is on click only, then that's a problem. The other aspect, which is a little bit harder for you to test but which has a big impact, is that when the content is expanded it needs to be analysed by screen readers. So when your page changes context, when new content appears on the page, it needs to be available for assistive technologies. There's a couple of ways to test that, which generally involve having a screen reader available to test and looking at code itself, so I'm happy to have a quick look if you want to send me a link and I can double-check. We can maybe [inaudible 00:13:35] the show notes later on.
Colin Gray: Yeah, that'd be good, actually. We'll do that then. We'll follow up. I'll send you a link to one of those tools. I think Visual Composer's one of the most commonly used WordPress visual designers. It's one of the easiest ways to offer that kind of functionality. So it's probably quite useful for a listener to know that. I mean, but you raise a good point there in terms of testing. I'm sure I remember five, six years ago or something, whenever I was working on this, back then there were tools that you could input a URL and it would give you a rating for a page. Is that something that's useful for people testing their show notes?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah, there's a lot of automated testing tools for accessibility out there. Some are better than others. The UK Government Digital Services last year created the worst accessible page in the world. They basically went about creating a page that had over 150 accessibility errors, and then they threw in that page to a whole bunch of automated accessibility testers to see how accurate it was. And the best tool didn't even raise 40% of the issues on the page. So automated testing tools are a fantastic way to get a pulse or feel for what's going on on a page, but they're not likely to find everything.
Nic Steenhout: That said, let's keep in mind that every page is not going to have 150 different errors trying to trick a tool, and I think if you do nothing else or if you don't have the ability or knowledge to do anything else then testing, by all means, run it through a testing tool. I would strongly recommend tenon.io. That's T-E-N-O-N dot I-O. It's a fantastic tool. You can do one page at a time on their homepage or you can actually subscribe to their service for ongoing testing, so that's a great service. The other is the WebM WAVE toolbar. That's W-A-V-E toolbar, which is free, also, to test.
Colin Gray: Okay, that's excellent. Yeah, I think you're right. I suppose there's perfect methods, there's good methods, and then there's methods which help people actually do something. And doing something at least is better, like you say, than nothing.
Nic Steenhout: There's one of this thing … I often talk to clients and they say, “Well, we can't make our website accessible for this person who's paralysed from the neck down, blind, and deaf.” And I'm thinking, “Yeah, however, chances are you're not gonna need that edge case all the time, and you could make your site 80% accessible with 20% of your effort.” And sure, it's a great win to hit those low hanging fruits and improve things. By all means, use automated testing tools, identify the problems, try to fix them, and improve accessibility as much as you can, both on your site and your show, and you'll [inaudible 00:16:52] laughing.
Colin Gray: Excellent. So was there anything else you'd like to add to the audio side of things and making audio more accessible? Or is it transcripts really the method for doing that?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah, transcript really is the way to make audio accessible.
Colin Gray: Right. Okay. So moving on to the tips, then, on your show notes. Have you got some tips? I mean, it is going away from the podcasting side of things, but we still have to make blog posts and we still have to make show notes. So do you have a top few steps for people to start making their text material more accessible?
Nic Steenhout: First thing to keep in mind is that all your nice, pretty layout, all the fancy styling and all that, at the end what you're wanting is delivered content. So it has to make sense on its own. A few ways to do that is to make sure you break sections of content using headings. So H1, H2, H3, and make sure they're hierarchical. So if you're having your home page, title of the page being H1, maybe the title of your post is going to be H2, and the subsequent sections within that are going to be H3. It's very useful for screen reader users who often rely on headings to get a glimpse of what's on the page. There's a screen reader user survey that came out last December that shows 67% of screen reader users rely on headings to navigate a page. So that's really important to create that structure there.
Nic Steenhout: The other is think about plain english. Make short sentences that are fairly straight-forward to understand. Front load the content, so if you have important stuff don't put it at the bottom of 100 word post. Make sure you put it up front. And remember that if you use images, if they're informative images you want to have alt text in there. If it's a decorate image, if it's just something to make it pleasing to the eye, then you want the alt attribute to be there but you put an empty alt attribute.
Colin Gray: Okay. Right, because it's not actually useful content. It's not adding value, is that what you mean?
Nic Steenhout: That's right. It doesn't add value so when an assistive technology such as a screen reader comes across it, it's either going to say, “There's an image here and there's no alt attributes, so I don't know what to do with it,” or it's going to say, “There's an image here but the alt attribute is empty so I can ignore it,” or it sees the alt attribute has text in it and then it can announce that attribute to the screen reader user.
Colin Gray: Yeah, perfect. It's funny, the advice you gave there. The fact that all of that actually makes it much better for the average user as well, I guess, because headings help us read content, help us skim content. Clarity and simple words and that makes content much more engaging, much more easy to read as well for anyone. So it's stuff we should be doing anyway that then helps accessibility.
Nic Steenhout: Yeah, I wrote several times about accessibility benefits everyone, and there's all kinds of aspects. You take a layout that benefits someone that has a cognitive impairment, so you don't want too busy or flashing things or you want to make sure the main content is easy to find, while it's also going to help the woman who just has a screaming toddler in her arm and is trying to access information on her cell phone. And well, she's not impaired, obviously, but her cognitive abilities are somewhat distracted. So in that respect, accessibility is benefited … One of my favourite ones is grey text on grey background. It's incredibly difficult to read if you have low vision, but go outside in the sun on your mobile phone and suddenly you can't make sense of it either. So yes, accessibility, primarily, is making sure that content is reachable and usable by people with disabilities. But you also end up having all kinds of super benefits.
Nic Steenhout: I was mentioning plain english. Well, how many of your audience is actually non-native English speakers? So that makes it easy for that. It also makes it easy for Google Translate to actually be able to translate your site and provide it in other languages.
Colin Gray: Yeah, perfect. Yeah, that's really useful. In terms of the tools we're using, a big proportion of the web is on WordPress, and especially podcasters because it's a really useful tool for delivering a podcast. Is WordPress out the box quite accessible, or are there things we need to do to prepare it?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah, see, WordPress, last number I heard was 35% of all sites on the internet were WordPress driven. WordPress out of the box is generally accessible, but there's a few things that are problematic with it. And there's a few things that actually can be done easily to solve it. The first thing is make sure you use an accessibility-ready theme. And when you're hunting for a theme, whether it's a theme you're going to use as is or you're going to use a trial theme with, search for accessibility-ready and that's going to get you a good part of the way there.
Nic Steenhout: The other thing. Obviously we generally want a contact form, and the best contact form from an ability to adapt it is contact form seven. To make sure contact form seven is fully accessible, there's a plug-in that's available so it improves the accessibility of that form, and that plug-in is by a guy called Joel [inaudible 00:23:08]. So he's got a few plug-ins that are specifically towards accessibility. They're free. They're brilliant. And the other plug-in that Joel makes is WordPress Accessibility. And you add that, it layers over your accessibility-ready theme, and it makes a whole bunch of changes under the hood that you won't really see yourself but it just makes it so much easier for people needing assistive technologies to interact with the site.
Colin Gray: Yeah, that's perfect. That's great. Yeah, a few good practical steps that people can take to start making their WordPress more accessible straight away. That's excellent. Okay. I mean, that covers everything I wanted to know, really. Is there anything you haven't talked about yet that you think's important for people to know?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah, just thinking about this fact that when you're not used to doing accessibility it takes a little bit more effort, it may take a little bit more resource. But it's worth doing it from the perspective of it's the right thing to do. It's also worth doing it because you are going to benefit a whole bunch of people that don't necessarily have disabilities, just like we were mentioning. And once you're past this learning curve stage it just becomes part of your workflow and it doesn't really take that much more time or energy or effort. You just do it.
Colin Gray: Yeah. And like you explained at the start, there's all these side benefits, actually, in general, such as the SEO benefit of having more text on your pages, the readability benefit, the engagement benefit for all users. Yeah, definitely worth putting the time into.
Colin Gray: Okay. Well thanks very much for joining me on the show, Nick. It's been really interesting through it. Really good to get this out there. A really valuable subject, I think, so thanks for your time.
Nic Steenhout: Well thanks for having me on and I'm always open for questions. You can find me on Twitter or my website, my email. So feel free to reach out.
Colin Gray: So where can people find you on Twitter?
Nic Steenhout: Twitter I am VaVroom. V-A-V-R-O-O-M.
Colin Gray: Perfect. And your show. Better plug your show, actually, as well. What's the podcast people should listen to afterwards?
Nic Steenhout: Yeah. My show is the Accessibility Rules Podcast. So that's A-1-1-Y-R-U-L-E-S dot COM, and A11Y is the numerinum for accessibility. So the word accessibility starts by A and finishes by Y and there's 11 letter in between. So when you're on Twitter and you see that hashtag, #A11Y, that's what it stands for.
Colin Gray: Do you know what? I didn't know that. I've seen, obviously, the tag there on a lot of your posts and I've never understood why. So that's good to know. Thanks then. Well yeah, definitely worth going and checking out Nick's podcast there. I see it putting out content on a regular basis. There's always good stuff there coming out into the world so, go and check it out over there. Thanks again, Nick, for your time, and if you're out there listening I hope you make a bit of an effort. At least look into it. Definitely the transcripts in the first place. Have a look into transcripts. Go and check out Trint if you want to as a first point, but there's other automated services out there too and at least put a couple of transcripts up there. See what benefit it brings you. I bet you find yourself get much more search traffic onto those posts. May be growing your audience bit by bit just by adding a bit of accessibility and doing the right thing at the same time. All right. Well thanks again for listening. I will see you on the next Podcraft in a few weeks. Until then, see you later.