How to Help Create a Mental Map
Visual features, such as color, font, and placement, can help a sighted user categorize and understand content for their mental map, but designing predominantly for visual effect can ultimately make content harder to grasp. For example, assigning graphics to every link and then organizing them in a solely aesthetically pleasing or exciting way does not provide useful ways to group content. Furthermore, the visual effects are either completely or partially lost on a low vision or blind user, making it even harder to start imagining a map. Having the location of content change or additional content appear in an unexpected location complicates the mapping process, making the old map useless, and requiring users to dedicate energy and time to figuring out the new rules. Changes impact all users, but they frequently impact blind and low vision users more.
There are many useful ways to organize content in a meaningful way, so there is no final answer as to the best way to design content. However, one fundamental accessibility expectation is that there be more than one way to navigate through content, so that users have multiple ways to create their mental maps and don’t depend on a single method of organizing that they may not be able to use. A skillful developer can figure out multiple ways to display content. For example, searching for a book by ISBN, title, and author and then giving the choice to present results by location, availability, or alphabetically gives a user nine ways to organize data so they can organize it however is most meaningful to them. Providing headings, lists, landmarks, etc. is like pointing out locations or patterns on a map and can help the screen reader and magnifier user navigate through well-thought-out organization of content.
When figuring out how to organize content, one question to ask is why a user is accessing it. If users are trying to interact with information related to being an employee, all the information they might want on a regular basis such as pay stubs, health insurance, and emergency contacts should be displayed prominently both visually and with appropriate markup for someone using a screen reader.
Proper markup includes:
- Use appropriate color contrast and size for low vision users and a meaningful label for blind users.
- Set apart elements. If a link/button stands alone or in a meaningful group, or if more meaningful text appears before less important information, so that it makes content easier to find.
- Label according to convention. A screen reader user might use a find function in their assistive technology to try and skip directly to the content they hope to find; label a search box “search,” not “find” or “?”.
- Think about the order of elements. On a site to search for a bus schedule, a screen reader user is likely to stop at the first box that says “search”, and not expect to find another search box later on the page.
An example of organizing content more consistently comes from a team from the Image and Video Computing Group at the School of Information at University of Texas at Austin. They are developing an app that scrapes websites and uses image recognition to find information about clothes being sold online and then presents it in a uniform manner, regardless of the website or item of clothing. The tool is being designed to help blind and low vision people shop online. Part of what makes it helpful is the consistent presentation of all of the information the app compiles, saving the user from having to figure out the structure on each site. While the app is not currently available for widespread use, it provides an example of how much time and energy meaningful and consistent organization can save.
A designer cannot control significant factors of how a user perceives content, such as a user’s skill level, past experience, and familiarity with types of web content. However using simple and recognizable design increases they likelihood that a wider variety of people are able to use it. If a user recognizes the general organization of content, they can skip much of the learning process, an argument for modeling off what has been done well. There is no database of types of perfectly navigable digital content. However, a good guide is to think of content that you navigated easily the first time you used it. Once you identify what made it easy, make sure those qualities are also accessible to someone who is blind or low vision. While a blind or low vision user is still going to have experiences that are different from those of sighted users, the basic principles behind organizing content apply across many groups of people – it is simply that much more important to the experience of screen reader and magnifier users that content is organized well.