Monday, March 9, 2015

Your Questions Answered: Accessible Emails [Part Two]

As I mentioned in Your Questions Answered: Accessible Emails [Part One], I've received numerous questions about making your content accessible in emails. Members of Student Life brought up many that I've heard from multiple departments across our campus, so I'm bringing you more of the common questions I am hearing, along with new ones as they come up.

Question #1: I put alternative text on the image of the flyer, so my email should be accessible, right?


Imagine you are in a wheelchair, and there two entrances into the building. One is in the front, nicely decorated with beautiful architecture, plants, and even benches for students, faculty, and staff to chat between classes or during breaks. It is very friendly, welcoming, and has a great view of the campus, but there are two things going against it for you in your wheelchair: no easy door to open and no ramps. You'd have to use the stairs, and if you do that, you will need someone to assist you up.

The second entrance is in the back of the building where very few people go. There is a long, winding sidewalk that goes all the way around the building to the back entrance, but by the time you get there, you notice there is the dumpster nearby. Not the greatest smell in the world. Looking around at the back entrance, you also notice that it has been highly neglected: mold growing everywhere, no benches, no pretty flowers and plants nearby. No one is here chatting up a storm with a colleague. There is only the quiet and the smells. It looks scary and unsafe. On a good note, after all the trouble of rolling up to this second entrance, you find there is indeed a ramp that you can use to enter the building. Plus, the door has a newly installed automatic door opener. But with all these observations, you can definitely tell that this accessible entrance was done as an afterthought and not a part of the planning process in the first place.

How do you feel going through the second entrance? You know the building is in "compliance" with accessibility standards, but from a universal design point of view, are you being treated fairly? Not if you are forced to go a longer distance on a winding sidewalk to the back of the building. Do you feel safe? Not if you are going around to the back where few sane people would ever enter.

The virtual world of email is no different from the physical in this respect. You can create an accessible email in that you can comply with the standards that remove the barrier, however, you are still treating people with disabilities unfairly.

What happens when you put all the alternative text that could possibly be needed to cover all the actual text that is embedded in the image of the flyer?
  1. A blind user must listen to the alternative text through a screen reader in its entirety every single time they want to find the information they need from the flyer. There is no pausing, no skipping around, and no ability to copy and paste the information that is heard to another application on the device.
  2. A visually impaired user can use a screen reader as well, but they also have to deal with the small text on the image. It is hard to zoom in on this content and read it legibly, despite what an able user may still be able to perceive even in a text's blurry state at that larger size. Again, there is no ability to copy and paste the content somewhere else, such as a calendar if it is an event.
  3. An able user can also use a screen reader or zoom in on the text, but they still may have difficulty visually understanding the content. Even with good vision, the text may be hard to read, depending on how the blurry the text in the image might be. And despite having fantastic color acuity, an able user can still have trouble reading the text due to poorly contrasting colors. Once more, there is no ability to copy and paste the content somewhere else, such as a calendar if it is an event. It must all be done manually.
No matter who they are, no matter their ability, I have heard many people describe their biggest complaint about embedded flyers in emails as the inability to copy and paste the content into their calendars. Manually typing it in is cumbersome. It is annoying. It wastes time. It is frustrating. It is discouraging. Everybody has that problem, not just people with disabilities.

Feel like you had to go the long way around to the back of the building?

Question #2: Outlook is installed on all the computers on campus, right? So everyone uses Outlook to view their emails?

No. We have become a very personal device-oriented society. Everyone has their own preference. Even ten to twenty years ago, all of us computer nerds were arguing it out over Mac versus PC. Now, we have different sizes of Mac's and PC's, not to mention Androids, Blackberries, Kindles, and the list goes on.

Each one has its own operating system, and each operating system is compatible with a different set of email clients. But the list doesn't end there. There is a multitude of email clients, such as Outlook.com, Yahoo! Mail, GMail, and AOL Mail, available via a multitude of web browsers, and these web-based email clients function differently from the ones installed straight on devices.

Right now for every one person reading an email on their desktop computer via Outlook, there are nearly three viewing it on their Apple iPhone, getting a very different experience because, at minimum, the screen size is much smaller on the iPhone. Here are some of the realities we have to face in a multi-device, multi-client world:
  • Content wraps at different points depending on the screen size, despite attempting to format it with line breaks and smaller font sizes.
  • Not all fonts are installed on all devices or email clients, so the more creative font family styles you installed specifically on your computer will be changed to other font family styles often controlled by the email clients.
  • Not all colors are made available on all email clients or devices, so they default to what is available which may change the meaning of the message you are attempting to present, if not impair a user from reading it due to an unintended color contrasting problem.
  • Web-based email clients often remove your images by default to prevent spam or other security-related issues from infecting their users' email. Users must specifically "trust" you in order to receive those images. If your email is the first time they've received anything from you, they must judge you on this very important first impression.
  • Mobile device email clients often cannot or will not load your images, whether or not you have a strong internet signal.
You cannot create any message and expect it to look exactly the same on everything people may view it on, period.

Question #3: But I've seen some companies post amazing looking emails. Some are even "responsive," as you call it. Why aren't your training materials showing us how to make our emails look that way?

When I first started to approach email accessibility, given your concerns were similar to those about  general web accessibility, I tried to find a software program that everyone on campus already had (free), that everyone found easy enough to use, and that everyone would find easy enough to turn their print media (word processor document) into accessible electronic media (email).

I had two out of three (sort of).

And I swear I was trying to be patient with the software, but if I'm losing my temper with it, I certainly don't want to pass it on to the rest of you as the requirement or email client standard.

Even with a technical background, responsive is a huge leap forward with a major learning curve. Web Services is still coming to terms with it. If we are trying to use it correctly and dealing with a lot of trials that take a while to solve, that isn't productive for anyone else on campus, especially considering the technical skills required to achieve this higher and more accessible standard.

Services that could provide responsive emails (though accessible would still require the user to understand and follow the standards) will cost money, require extensive training, and still take a lot of time to create. Since our resources are thinly spread out, it is far more reasonable to ask everyone to do the basics which I provide in all my training materials. While they are "basic," I've seen some amazing examples of creativity, particularly with what the staff at Career Services has been posting (towards the end of this presentation).

I hope these answers help you all. Let me know if you have other questions. I still have many in mind, but I'll answer the ones most commonly asked first. If you'd like me to speak to your department, please contact me to schedule an appointment, and I'll happily work with your area about any questions you may have.

-Karole