Cherish inclusive design standards
It’s my last week at the University of Edinburgh, a quiet time to reflect.
Over the last couple of years, we have published the University Design System, the Inclusive Language Guide, and the Editorial Style Guide. These have brought us closer to inclusive design standards. We need to keep developing these resources, and not take them for granted.
My mission: applying what I know, and listening
Like many of us in the University community, I went to school during the era of Section 28, in an atmosphere of homophobia. As an Australian citizen and Fiji resident I also grew up in a culture of ingrained racism and postcolonial injustice. I’m a carer too, and everything I know about disability is from my experience of looking after members of my family, and from talking to people in the University community who co-created the Inclusive Language Guide. I have always been interested in the way that systemic oppression influences language, and have made it my mission to apply what I know to content design in this University.
Learning to use accessibility tools helped our teams ensure our products are as close as possible to the human-centred ideal. I spent a year listening to users and analysing what was said to make the guidance in the Effective Digital Content course better, more findable, and more inclusive. I helped develop the beta University Design System which brings design, development and content standards together. It’s been my privilege to co-design the Inclusive Language Guide with members of this University community who gave up many hours of their time and made themselves vulnerable sharing their stories with me.
Content design is the creation of an environment that users will physically navigate to find what they need to complete a task. That environment should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. And it should be safe.
The way we write content should let users know that they will be able to find what they need with minimum cognitive and physical pain. For disabled users, this includes writing links that fully make sense without context, and adding alt text to images and subtitles to videos. Users of assistive tech should be able to understand and read everything we have to say.
Our information architecture should make it easy for students to access services, and the approaching migration to the new platform is an opportunity to revise the way we approach structure.
Everyone should feel safe using our services, knowing that the language they encounter will not harm them. Language that does not exclude is business-critical for providing an environment for students who expect equality as a given.
When the Inclusive Language Guide was launched, one member shared it on LinkedIn:
The University of Edinburgh Editorial Style Guide now includes a section on Inclusive Language addressing the appropriate way to talk about race, ethnicity, disability and LGBT+ issues.
I am moved by the work that has been put into it and the extraordinary touch with which the team has addressed these topics.
Other colleagues wrote to thank us, saying they had already used the guide to resolve disputes, or now included a link to the guide in their email signatures.
But there has also been pushback from colleagues who do not see the point.
Opportunities for change
As a University we are still far from human-centred. While some digital environments have made excellent use of UX and inclusive design, much of our digital estate still has bare and broken links, images with missing alt text, and videos without subtitles. The journey to find a simple piece of information can be very difficult for our prospective and current students. Revising the information architecture of our larger sites is likely to face problems of hierarchy and silos despite the best efforts of dedicated individuals.
If we are to continue our reputation for excellence, we need a critical refocus of our priorities so that we can deliver our responsibilities to provide robust services. Our inconsistent understanding of user experience and content design has let us, and our users, down in some key services.
We can change this, but we have to address some deep systemic problems, and find opportunities where we can.
Cherish inclusive design
A more inclusive content design culture should be cherished and nurtured by voices from our communities. We can do this by looking after what we have; by continuing to push for a standard of consistency and excellence with our developing Design System; by using and contributing to the Editorial Style Guide; and by continuing to state the case for language as a key component of the environments we build, wherever we happen to be in the University.
Goodbye and good luck to my beloved publishing community of dedicated, talented, empathic people.
Please look after this guide: