5 minutes with... Sarah Richards

By Clare Reucroft | 10/04/2019

Sarah Richards

Meet Sarah - founder of Content Design London, who will be speaking at Camp Digital 2019. We talked about her thoughts on accessibility and usability, and her latest crowdsourced project - the readability guidelines. 

At Camp Digital, your talk is entitled ‘Accessibility is Usability’.
Why is this topic so important and what can audience members expect?

If a site isn't accessible, it can't really be considered usable. An impairment can be permanent, situational or temporary. There are over 13 million people with a registered disability in the UK at the moment (SCOPE).

That's a lot of audience to ignore.

Organisations that don't take accessibility seriously, usually fall into 3 categories. They might think accessibility is:

  • only code and screenreaders
  • too expensive
  • not worth it for their audience

My replies would be:

  1. no, it's not and there's so much you can do with just changing your language
  2. really not, content is usually the cheapest thing to change
  3. it's not just the audience who self-identify with an impairment you can help. It's everyone.

I'll be discussing all the really easy things you can do to open up your services and information to the widest possible audience.

You worked with the UK Government for 10 years – what were you involved in and what were some of your biggest achievements there?

I worked all over government but my biggest achievement was coining the term content design and creating the first content design team for the Government Digital Service. Together, we created the discipline that is now being used around the world. We were very lucky.

We took all the best bits from a variety of disciplines, put them together and got away with a lot of behaviour we wouldn't have in another organisation! The team set the course for the British Government's digital communications. They were a wonderful team and one of the best I have ever worked with.

Seeing the style guide make headlines made me laugh the most but working with my fellow content people, designers and user researchers made it amazing.

At Content Design London, you run workshops for those wanting to learn more about content design as a discipline. What is the number one challenge that you see amongst the teams and individuals that join your courses?

Bizarrely, it's not the technical skill of writing. It's about communicating to colleagues why we are doing what we are doing.

The course is steeped in evidence and data. How to get the language your users are using, the mental models they have and then, how to get your content decisions across to your colleagues. The idea is that it is very hard to argue with your users (not impossible!).

If you have enough information to show why you are making the decisions you are, you will be in a better position to get good, accessible, usable, user-focused content. Saying "our audience have these questions, in this order, with this level of emotion and using this language and this is the best way to get a response from them" is more powerful than saying "it's better content this way".

We teach you how to get all that data in a short amount of time and from your desk. It's very efficient.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

We are working with a number of clients from a global travel company to a legal society. But the one we are working on as a team is our readability guidelines. It’s a global crowdsourcing project looking at the usability and accessibility of style decisions.

I started it because I saw people creating style guide after style guide. Then arguing with colleagues about the things in the style guide. Most of the terms and considerations in a style guide are (or should be) steeped in usability. Why all-caps a bad idea. The reason jargon will exclude people etc. These are not really style decisions (I am not talking tone here, that’s a different thing).There’s a stack of evidence out there about these tiny decisions, so with our amazing volunteer contributors, we have listed top-line summaries and all the evidence we could find.

Next step will be to publish a style guide that is entirely based in evidence. That way, content people can concentrate on more important things: tone, engagement, creativity, strategy, usefulness of content. Not whether to cap every other word.

I’ve heard time and time again that content people are bored of arguing with colleagues about stupid little style nuances. This project was to see if we are all seeing similar challenges (we are), what evidence would work with our colleagues and if it would work. We have just finished beta and there is still so much to do.

What are you most looking forward to at Camp Digital?

The line-up! That's an amazing group of speakers. I want to see all of it. I don't want to miss a thing.

Sarah's Camp Digital talk, "Accessibility is Usability", will be at 13:45, on Wednesday 12th June. For more information or to book tickets, head on over to the Camp Digital website.