Key goals for learning leaders include better employee performance, more effective online training, and better overall business results. These are far-reaching goals that apply in nearly every organization. And there’s a strategy that learning leaders can apply broadly to nudge results upward in all these areas: improving the usability—the accessibility—of learning materials.
Jettison any stereotypes of “accessible” content that are popping into your mind; instead, think about accessibility from a user- or learner-centered design perspective, one that aims for stellar learner experience.
Usable, engaging training provides a better learner experience (LX) than cumbersome or confusing materials. Reducing cognitive load improves results. More effective training can change behavior in ways that drive improved performance, which in turn, boosts overall business results.
A strategic view of accessibility puts learning leadership in the driver’s seat. There’s a lot that learning leaders can do to improve the usability and accessibility of their organizations’ training materials. The best part is, all learners will benefit, regardless of their individual needs, preferences, and abilities.
Design for usability
Creating usable content starts with design and overall strategy, which is why L&D leaders play an important role.
Since updated U.S. Section 508 regulations on accessible online content took effect in 2018, nearly all authoring tools, as well as collaboration and social media tools, easily enable content creators to include basic accessibility features like closed captions and alt text descriptions of images, so ensuring that your team has tools to create accessible content is not difficult. Accessibility checkers are available online to vet content, web pages, and more.
But these are just the bare minimum. If your content strategy and design don’t embrace learner-centered design, usability, and accessibility—if these characteristics are an afterthought or an add-on “if we need to”—your content will suffer. A design approach that bolsters accessibility embraces multimodal content, provides choices to learners, and anticipates potential barriers to access and use.
Default to multimodal content
Learners have different preferences around how they access content, whether they love (or hate) videos, prefer to do online training in short bits using their smartphones, or want to print out a long article so they can highlight sections or jot notes in the margins as they read.
Designing all content to be multimodal accommodates these preferences while also making content more usable and engaging for more learners. Some learning environments make using videos or printing content unworkable. Some learners prefer to initially explore content in one format, a 5-minute video perhaps, then use a different one—such as quick lookup on their phone—to review key pieces of information.
- Build all content to include at least two modalities or media, such as video with complete transcripts; articles with graphics, infographics, or charts; microlearning with related text-based resources for deeper study, etc.
Allow learners to control aspects of appearance and function
A review of guidelines for designing to accommodate specific learner needs reveals that designing to accommodate one disability might mean doing something that creates barriers for other learners. That’s why truly learner-centered, usable design acknowledges a vast array of learner preferences and abilities—and accommodates them by handing some control over to learners. (Offering multimodal content helps too!)
Allow learners to control some aspects of appearance and function by moving away from paradigms that step all learners through the same content in the same order. Flexible approaches to completing training allow learners to move between media as they change devices or move to different learning environments. Take accessibility and usability farther by enabling learners to change the appearance of some online content as well.
- Build in ways for learners to move among versions of content so they can decide how and when to use the text, video, and audio resources you provide.
- Build in features that permit learners to skip or return to sections or specific content.
- Empower learners to change contrast, text size, and even typeface or color scheme to make materials more readable.
- Allow learners to opt out of animations or flashy enhancements or choose to read text items without downloading large graphics.
Mitigate potential technology barriers
As learner audiences become more global and diverse, some assumptions about technology access and ability may create barriers that reduce the usability of your training content. Consider how the abrupt shift to remote learning laid bare the vast differences in access to both connected devices and reliable internet connections among US K-12 students. Similar (or more extreme) disparities may exist among your organization’s learners and employees around the world.
Anticipate and mitigate potential technological barriers by designing for a variety of learner environments and situations. One way to do this is creating content that can be downloaded and used offline.
Another is moving past “mobile-friendly” content that learners can use on a smartphone to mobile-first content: Think about learners who only ever have a phone with a small screen to use for their training, and design your content, including linked documents, navigation elements, and interactive exercises, to be easy to read and use on a smartphone. In other words, don’t assume that everyone has the option of a computer with a large screen and a reliable wired, always-on, internet connection.
- Create plain-text versions or use low-res images to reduce file size for downloadable content.
- Always include brief, informative alt text descriptions of images to aid learners who do not (or cannot) download or see the images.
- Offer an alternative to streaming videos, whether those are smaller, downloadable videos; audio-only podcast files; or complete transcripts of each video, packaged with some still images.
Explore user-centered design and universal design for learning to discover more guidelines for making content accessible and usable for all learners, regardless of their abilities, device, learning environment, or access to technology. Search Learning Solutions to uncover examples of how your peers have created content that can be used in challenging environments.
Explore The Learning Guild’s resources
The Learning Guild offers a wealth of freely accessible content on improving the accessibility and usability of online training resources. Our newest eBook, Accessibility Basics, gathers much of that content into one place. Download your free copy today!
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