Content is foundational to bringing digital experiences to life. How might content creators ensure that these experiences are not only accessible, but that they are open to a diverse population, and are equitable and inclusive for all?
You’ve likely heard stories of would-be customers attempting to visit an establishment only to learn that, for one reason or another, that establishment cannot (and sometimes, will not) accommodate them.
Stories like these often involve physical inaccessibility, such as a building without a level entry or equal access for those in wheelchairs; a parking lot lacking clearly marked handicapped spaces; or signage sans braille or other tactile aids to facilitate way-finding for the visually impaired.
Now, imagine layering that scenario with factors like race and gender. To say these experiences are not welcoming would be an understatement, especially given the climate of unrest in the U.S. and abroad over matters of race and gender inequality.
Even with advancements made possible by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), large segments of society continue to be denied equal access to places and spaces that many take for granted. That includes digital information spaces.How might #content creators ensure that digital experiences are not only accessible, but that they are open to a diverse population, and are equitable and inclusive for all? #contentdiversity #DEI Click To Tweet
Understanding “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” (DEI)
“Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — the ADA is an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities.” — Introduction to the ADA
The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), advocates for accessibility in digital spaces, providing “strategies, standards, and supporting resources” to help “make the web more accessible to people with disabilities.”
WAI provides discipline-specific resources for content writers, designers, developers, and just about every member of a multi-disciplinary team involved with building digital experiences, and feature the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that further explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.
While the ADA is a single source of truth for physical accessibility, and WAI/WCAG is the gold standard for digital accessibility, no single source exists for definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Code for America, an organizational network tasked with “making government work for the people, by the people, in the digital age, defines DEI from the context of government services that extend to technology.
But what does the digital design space have to say about DEI?
How to begin designing for diversity, an online guide to “building equitable products, services, and content,” authors Boyuan Gao and Jahan Mantin of Project Inkblot write:
- Diversity is quantitative. It’s the composition of different people represented in what you make, and the decision-makers on your team.
- Equity lives in how we design our systems and processes; the way we work, and who we work with, so we are upholding our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
- Inclusion speaks to the quality of the experience you’ve designed for these diverse folks, so they experience themselves as leaders and decision-makers.
A note here about the use of the word design: Gao and Mantin define design as “the creation of a plan to build an object, system, or human interaction.” When you get right down to it, content is integral to those plans.
As Writing is Designing authors Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle put it: “Writing is part of the design process, and writers are designers… people who want to use words to build better, more humane technology.”
Audience segmentation and research methodologies
“When you have a clear definition of your target users, you have a better chance for creating content they’ll actually use.” — Kristina Halvorson, Content Strategy for the Web
Whether writing an article, creating product copy, or writing microcopy for a digital application, it’s vitally important to know your audience, especially when setting out to create content that is more diverse and inclusive.
There are several resources that can help you gain that knowledge:
- Readership demographics for most publications are available in media kits or writers’ guidelines, much of which can be found online.
- Product marketing demographics can be gleaned from customer profiles, competitive analysis, and related research.
- Digital user information is regularly gathered through analytics tools, surveys, and other data collection methods.
And, if for some reason you don’t have access to any of the above, there are other low-to-no cost ways to conduct non-invasive, digital sleuthing to help you create content that, as Metts and Welfle say, “…make[s] technology more humane and welcoming.”
Solopreneurs can employ simpler tools and methodologies:
- Conduct a simple search of a brand or publication name online
- Search keywords relevant to the brand, product or service
- Monitor social media accounts for the brand (as well as competitors)
All of these methods can give you an idea of who is talking about the brand, and what they are saying — the good and the not-so-good. There is value in negative commentary, which can reveal insights on gaps in content that you can begin to address in the content you create.
Many digital product teams rely on personas — fictional representations of an aggregate of users that comprise a target audience — to create products and services. Personas are great tools to use in the product development process, helping teams stay focused on user needs.
However, as Sara Wachter-Boettcher cautions in her book, ‘Technically Wrong,’ “Most of the personas and other documents that companies use to define who a product is meant for don’t need to rely on demographic data nearly as much as they do. Instead, they need to understand that “normal people” include a lot more nuance – and a much wider range of backgrounds – than their narrow perceptions would suggest.”
In other words, personas also need to be diverse and inclusive. Otherwise, you risk excluding potential users who may feel alienated from the experience you’ve created.Whether writing an article, creating product copy or writing microcopy for a digital application, it’s vitally important to know your audience, especially when setting out to create content that is more diverse and inclusive. #contentdiversity #DEI Click To Tweet
Give the people what they want
“Empathy is the foundation of great design. The better you understand the needs, aspirations, hopes, and challenges of the people you’re designing for, the more likely your solutions will be adopted and embraced.” — IDEO Design Kit
Knowing those you want to target with content is an important first step to creating welcoming information spaces. For current consumers, content that meets their needs provides value for their time and effort.
And as you work to formulate content that invites and embraces differences beyond the current audience, you begin to cast a wide net over those who may want to be part of a brand’s conversation, but whose voices were never welcomed to the digital table.
From Metts and Welfle: “…if the language you use tells a potential user that you didn’t think about their experience when building this thing, they’re not going to use it. That’s a big chunk of revenue you’re leaving on the table.”
Knowing how and where content is consumed can also help your content become more diverse and inclusive. A good way to get at this information is to ask questions.
Gao and Mantin provide an excellent list of questions for what they call Building a Shared Language.
These questions can help identify and break down any biases that you or your team may have with the goal of expanding your consideration beyond best-case scenarios, and can surface potential barriers to user groups you may not have considered – users who may not be reflected in the makeup of your team:
- What’s the worst-case scenario, and on whom?
- How do the identities within your team influence and impact your design decisions?
- Who might you be excluding?
- How will you engage the people you want to reach within your design process, equitably?
Additional questions include:
- What are your top priorities for this project?
- What do you value when working with others? Name three behaviors (e.g. integrity, honesty, open communication)
- What race(s) and gender(s) do you identify as? What other ways do you identify, that are important to you? (e.g. queer, Latinx, middle-class woman in my 30s, aunt, grew up in a military family, etc.)
- How might these identities influence and/or inform how you design products or services?
- What perspectives or lived experiences might be missing from your team?
Freelance creators may find it useful to sit with clients to help glean answers that may be relevant to the content you’re creating and the people you’re creating it for.Asking questions can help identify and break down biases your team may have and can surface potential barriers to user groups you may not have considered – users who may not be reflected in the makeup of your team. #contentdiversity #DEI Click To Tweet
Voice and tone, aka empathy and normalization
“I really hate the word “diversity.” It suggests something… other. As if it is something…special. Or rare. I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.” — Shonda Rhimes, You Are Not Alone
At first read, the above quote may seem contradictory to the concept of DEI. But stay with me here.
As you’re creating content that is more inclusive and welcoming, it’s important to revisit the concepts of voice and tone:
- Voice – Jargon-free content that represents the brand, product, or service being offered — the what of content.
- Tone – Content created by the brand that speaks to a variety of user types — the how of content.
Considering voice and tone through a DEI lens may trigger a sense of overwhelm. There’s so much to learn. So much to consider. And so much that can go sideways. That’s OK. The whole idea is to think of what is possible when crafting content that fosters a sense of belonging for everyone, rather than content that emphasizes “otherness.”
Which brings us back to the Rhimes quote. Wachter-Boettcher references this same quote in ‘Technically Wrong,’ adding, “Normalizing TV doesn’t start with casting…it starts in the writers’ room.”
Likewise, normalizing content for digital spaces starts with content creators. See what we did there?
Executing your accessible content strategy
“In order to create for all, we have to employ processes that authentically engage misrepresented communities. People tend to think of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in terms of implicit bias workshops, employee resource groups, and hiring processes. These efforts are all important, but we focus on DEI as action — as it relates to the creation of products, services, and content — and use a design-thinking approach to tackle these tricky issues.” — Gao and Mantin
Before content creators write a single word, most consult writer’s guidelines, style guides, and similar documents to help guide the creation of content that adheres to established standards.
Many large brands have established brand copy guidelines that address accessibility, voice, and tone, and also cover nuances you won’t find in AP or Chicago style manuals, including:
These resources are freely available online, and model how brands craft content that balances the brand voice with content that not only meets the needs of users but also address accessibility and inclusivity.
There are similar resources that take diversity, equity, and inclusion into consideration and can help you find the right tone for your readers or users:
The Conscious Style Guide is “the first website devoted to conscious language,” with the mission “to help writers and editors think critically about using language — including words, portrayals, framing, and representation — to empower instead of limit,” and includes guides for myriad topics, including:
The Radical Copyeditor “helps authors and publishers align their words with their values of inclusion, equity, and nonviolence, bringing forward a particular awareness and sensitivity to how norms around race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, age, and other elements show up in our language.”
In defense of safe spaces
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers’ profit… the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” – Martin Luther King
David Dylan Thomas, a content strategy advocate with Think Company closed his 2019 Confab talk, “Fight Bias with Content Strategy” with this MLK quote from some 50 years ago. It remains relevant today, especially as content designers and other creatives consider how to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the creative process.
And while not a cure-all for the ills that turning a blind eye to matters of DEI can cause, the content we create is integral to the creation of safe, welcoming, and inclusive information spaces for all.
Additional resources: Go deeper
Cards for Humanity-Centered Design:
- The Designers Critical Alphabet Cards – A deck of cards designed by Lesley-Ann Noel, Ph.D., “to introduce designers and design students to critical theory and to help them reflect on their design process.”
Format: Card deck available for purchase
- 52 UX Cards to Discover Cognitive Biases – Another deck of cards created by Stephanie Walter and Laurence Vagner to “help people discover and understand different cognitive biases.”
Format: PDF download
- The Tarot Cards of Tech – A third deck of cards created by Seattle-based design and strategy consultancy Artefact Group, as “a tool to inspire important conversations around the true impact of technology and the products we design,” and to “encourage creators to think about the outcomes technology can create, from unintended consequences to opportunities for positive change.”
Format: Interactive online card tool
Videos and Virtual Learning:
- Diverse City LLC – A DEI consultancy offering clients “a solutions-oriented approach to helping companies assess and solve issues of growth and development in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The consultancy’s YouTube channel features learning videos that explore a variety of DEI-related topics.
Format: Videos, workshops
- Creative Reaction Lab – Consultancy and creators of Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD), a design process focused on “a community’s culture and needs so that they can gain tools to dismantle systemic oppression and create a future with equity for all.” In addition to a field guide to facilitate the ECCD process, the consultancy offers virtual learning opportunities useful to designers of all kinds.
Format: Webinars, workshops
“We often see disability and accessibility as a design problem to solve or a design constraint. I’d just love to see what could happen if we start from a point of, ‘What can disability tell us about how we can be making spaces differently?’”— Liz Jackson, Disability Design Advocate, The Disabled List