Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Your Questions Answered: Accessible Emails [Part One]

Early this year, I was invited to talk about accessible emails with the leadership of the Division of Student Life as well as the staff and students who commonly send out email blasts to our diverse audiences. They send out a lot - and I mean a LOT - of emails because they have so many exciting and important events throughout the year. They have a goal of improving their event attendance which will improve our university's student retention rates as well as develop well-rounded students ready to face the "real world." My aim was to assist them in achieving those goals better by improving their communication methods, specifically with email.

Like all things, no matter how much work or preparation you do, you will always miss some information that your audience needs (professors are nodding their heads as they read this). I had adjusted my Lessons @ Lunch: Accessible Emails presentation to include examples of types of inaccessible emails that came from the offices of Student Life, but I received numerous questions during my presentation that it could not immediately answer. I've made vast changes to the Accessible Email presentation on the Web Accessibility website in response to all the valuable feedback, and I'd like to talk about some of those points here in a little more detail.

And for those looking for the quick escape from this article: I have the good accessible email examples you've repeatedly asked me for in the Accessible Email presentation thanks to the amazing staff at Career Services. Many, many kudos to Alana Hefner and Hillary King for the progress they've been making to become more accessible!

Question #1: We want to engage our students, and we know that graphics are engaging for our students. How do we continue to do that while keeping our emails accessible (legally speaking)?

This question has multiple parts. First, true. Graphics are engaging. I look through my social media, and I'm often drawn to the graphics. I'm right there with you, but from the legal standpoint of accessibility, you obviously cannot engage a blind student with an amazing graphic. You are losing a portion of your audience. You are also losing the purpose of the email itself.

Take a step back for a moment, though: what is engaging? The colors? The layout? Or is it the content? No matter how well designed that graphic is, unless it has information students want to use, they aren't going to attend your event. Make this your mantra: Content is King!

Second, when it comes to first engagement, you need to start at the beginning. When most of us open up our inbox to check our mail, the first things we see are: sender, subject, and date sent. That's it. No pretty graphics. No detailed event description. Just three small bits of information, all of which are important, but which one is going to have the greatest influence on someone to select the email for further viewing?

The answer: the subject line. You must have an interesting or engaging subject line. It isn't like the old days of "if you build it, they will come." No one selects and reads every single email in their inbox. They scan their email, organize it, delete the ones they don't find interesting (don't trust or looks suspicious, doesn't pertain to them, making their inbox too full they can't receive "important" emails, etc.). You don't know their preferences and organizational methods like they do. You have to start thinking like your audience and ask yourself, What would make them interested in reading my email for more information?

Third, there is no hard and fast rule that you absolutely cannot use graphics. Just keep in mind not everyone can view those graphics, including able users who may be using web-based email or have security settings that block images as well as able users who are using mobile devices in low internet signal areas that cannot load those images due to size issues, etc. Which brings me to the next question...

Question #2: Are we doing this just for people with disabilities?

From a legal standpoint, we are definitely making changes to our communications in order for people with disabilities to have better access to our email messages, but look at that last paragraph from Question #1 again. In order to help able users view their emails, we must use alternative text on our images, so when they don't load up visually, we have something to go by that represents the content we would be otherwise missing. That's right, methods to help people with disabilities benefit everyone!

As I mention often, we all suffer time to time from temporary disabilities. Go to a bar to watch a game on one of the many fancy widescreen TVs, and what can you hear? The chattering of your bar mates, not the game. You are temporarily deafened by the atmosphere you are in as you try to perceive what is going on at that sporting event. What do we provide deaf people with, so they can enjoy the same game on the TV? The answer: closed captioning. And do you use it at the bar? Yes! It is for everyone, not just the disabled. It makes life easy, just like automatic doors and wheelchair ramps (versus stairs) and elevators (versus those same cruel, my-legs-are-killing-me stairs).

A lot of great inventions have come out of improvements we've made for people with disabilities. They need it. You love it. We all benefit from it.

Question #3: Back to why we want to use this exact poster in our email: it is our brand or theme for this event. Plus, the artist put a lot of heart and soul into this. Are you telling us we can't use what the artist made?

I'm going to make a couple references to my own art training. As anyone who knows me well knows, I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I appreciate art in all its forms. I think most people know me for my photography these days (just a hobby, mind you), but I used to do graphic design back in the day and before even that, I took a number of art classes. Yes, I went the route of computer scientist, and even more sacrilegious to my own heart and soul, I added mathematics. So far from what I understood as art, I tried to make amends by continuing to take a few design classes here and there in college. And lucky me, fast-forwarding to now, my job allows me to be artistic in web design. But my art background was tempered by a couple things:

First, when it comes to art, there are two kinds: (1) decorative and (2) functional. A good example of how I draw the line between the two is when I made ceramic pieces in my art classes. A functional piece of art is used for more than show. In the case of a wheel-thrown pot, you can eat out of it or store food in it. Yummy!

Well, maybe.

Towards the end of the construction of the pot or bowl, you have to decide how it is going to look. If you use a glaze that is labeled not dinnerware safe, then your artwork is no longer functional; it is strictly decorative. Lead and cadmium are in some gorgeous color glazes, but they are extremely toxic. It makes me cry sometimes when I realize I want to use a certain glaze on a pot, but that pot can't have any food in it because I'd poison someone accidentally. Perhaps kill them. Scary. Sacrifices must be made in the design for it to be functional.

When it comes to posters I walk by on campus, I sometimes cringe due to some of that same design training. Posters are supposed to be functional art as well. If you can't read the content due to poor color contrast or illegibly created text, you are no longer dealing with functional art. It loses its primary purpose which is to tell the person viewing it the who, what, when, where, why and/or how of an event. Remember my mantra? Content is King! It supersedes all!

Second, when it comes to marketing, with non-profits like our educational institution or with for-profit commercial ventures, you must abide by the standards of the entity you are working for. That's branding, messaging, and whomever happens to be the marketing director at that time.

I had an amazing marketing director at my first marketing job, George Alexander (if you are reading this, I hope you are smiling). I thought when he'd hired me that he did so because I was just an absolutely amazing artist. I mean, he complimented all my work. Everyone did. They just loved my artistic talent (they thought my services were better suited at a commercial entity in Houston - one of my favorite compliments). But every single time I'd design a poster or flyer or brochure or whatever, he'd look it over, pause, and then tell me to change something.

Every. Single. Time.

Nothing I did was perfect no matter how hard I tried. Nothing was sacred. We'd have some discussions about why I'd choose one design element over another (like outer glows - you knew I'd mention them), but when it came to the final product, the marketing director got the final say. I'd show him different options, and he'd pick what he felt promoted the message the best.

I learned something very valuable that many people don't get these days:

This is not my work; this is my university's product. This isn't me. This is the university. There is no ego in this kind of design work. No one knows I did it. I don't put my signature on it like an artist does with a painting. I am representing an entity. I can certainly add it to my portfolio as a project I worked on, but when it comes to marketing to an audience, it's about the content, or the message, not the artist. Content is King! It supersedes all!

Including artists who must adjust their artwork to suit the needs of the entity they are promoting.

As always, please feel free to contact me about any other questions my presentations or articles do not explain. This is merely a "Part One" in a long discussion about accessibility in the communications channel we call email. It's a fairly new discussion not just for our university but for our global community. Many, many top commercial companies send out inaccessible emails. These poor examples flood our inboxes as the benchmark of email communication. Our understanding is based on the fact that our software primarily focuses on print materials. For example, while Microsoft Word will point out errors in your spelling or grammar, there is no paper clip that pops up automatically when you insert an image that says, "I see you are including an image in this document. Would you like to add alternative text?"

We have a lot of growing pains to get through because our technology culture is heavily focused on print media and not properly on communication itself. Because everyone has the technology, we are flailing around with our own ideas of how to communicate without support of agreed standards/regulations/guidelines or proper training on how to appropriately and strategically communicate through all our communication channels. I hope you will continue to give me feedback, so I can improve our training materials and answer more questions on this very important subject!