I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.
– Stephen Hawking
Change, especially when it comes to technology, is inevitable. Software updates occur daily. We expect yearly new releases for our favorite phones and laptops. Gaming systems become more immersive and interactive with each new iteration. So how can we possibly keep up when we don’t know what will come down the road next?
I believe that the answer lies in digital accessibility—the inclusive practice of creating content without barriers so that it is usable for people with all types of abilities. We sometimes refer to this kind of design as universal design or inclusive design. I like to think of it as the process of creating liquid content that can be poured into hundreds of different kinds of containers.
The process of futureproofing our content is surprisingly simple. We can use a company’s website as an example. On the homepage of the site are a collection of images, text, and interactive elements. The web developer is responsible for labeling each element accordingly. Ideally, the page will be organized in an outline format with clear headings that can be labeled H1, H2, H3, etc. Paragraphs of text will be labeled as body copy, and important sections may be noted with bold or italics. Images and interactive elements (forms, videos, links, etc.) are labeled, too.
These distinctions may be obvious to some. Our eyes may tell us that pictures are different from text. Our ears may hear background music or error alert notifications. And we may be able to use our mouse or touch screen to interact with these elements as we encounter them. But, for those of us who may not have sight, hearing, or touch, this digital labeling system is invaluable. When labeled properly, blind users can rely on hearing to get a description of the image. Deaf users can rely on printed captions. And those with limited motor skills can rely on voice activation or headset technology for navigation.
Currently, a website with proper labels is accessible from a variety of devices: computers, laptops, tablets, and cell phones. But what about a braille book, virtual reality headset, or smart refrigerator; or, even more futuristic, what about the smart flying car, prosthetic limb, or health device that hasn’t been invented yet? Will those devices also be able to use our content?
Just as users with a range of abilities rely on these digital labels to help them understand and interpret content, so will future technologies. Because we have standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) that teach us to label things effectively, we’re giving the future inventors of the world access to futureproofed content. Books that were once static on printed pages can now be heard through speakers, translated into reusable braille, or even interpreted as a painting. A printed poster can be autogenerated from a website with no human interaction. Liquid content, like a properly labeled lesson plan, can even be inserted into a game so that children can do their homework between quests.
So how can you start futureproofing your work? Simple things like using proper heading styles and adding alternative text for images can ensure that your content is navigable for all types of devices, present and future. To get started, see the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for some wonderful resources on making accessible Microsoft Word Documents, presentations, and PDF’s. Through these digital accessibility principles, we can keep pace with the ever-changing information highway.
Digital Marketing Director
D.H.S. Section 508 Trusted Tester