2014-19-December-Letterpress.jpg
Why do we keep information in document files? Great question. From information theory, we understand that documents contain a lot of redundant content. A given file might exist for only one purpose -- for example, to document the votes approving an internal project.

That fact is relatively distinct and discrete -- for example:

1 Dec. 2014 vote on ProjectX

  • John Smith, Yes
  • Kathy Johnson, Yes
  • Steve Nevermore, No

The document itself may contain lots of other information -- corporate logos, formatting, trivial details about the meeting room, etc. We may think those elements are critical, but they’re not -- we only need the voting results.

Finding the Signals

From information theory, we can borrow the concept of signal-to-noise ratio. The information we seek is most easily found if we focus on the key data and minimize the background clutter.

Signal-Noise Ratio (SNR) = SignalPower / NoisePower

As radio pioneers learned, amplifying the overall power improves both signal and noise -- the message is louder, but so is the static. All of that extra stuff in the document can impact the usability of a document for people who access information differently than I might -- for example, someone who uses a screen reader to read the content out loud.

If we focus on the information -- the signal -- in most cases, we should not care about the formatting, the images and the like. The only thing we care about is getting that data in the right hands at the right time. Collaboration and decision support systems require frictionless access to information. In general, tools like Office 365 help us to publish information to the widest possible global audience (in theory, and respecting security, of course). We might choose to place information in web pages that make use of adaptive, compliant responsive designs to assure the information is always presented in the most easily consumable format. It’s the widest audience.

Freeing Up the Information 

However, a big potential problem arises when accessibility standards come into play (as they should). Many of those elements we think make documents more “friendly” -- colors, graphics, custom fonts -- actually inhibit the use of the information when adapted to accessibility standards. Screen readers and toolkits may treat all information equally in the document, inflating the importance of extraneous information or obscuring the actual information contained. It’s the rare case where we may destroy a signal to noise ratio -- we’re just turning up the static while the broadcast stays quiet.

Many of you may not need to rely on the clarity provided by accessibility standards. So let me simplify it. Imagine if regular text's appearance was distorted. To return to our project vote data earlier, think how difficult it would be to get that information if it were formatted differently:

2014-19-December-Information.jpg

Some document formats are tougher than others. Acrobat PDF files, especially with large, scanned blocks of image text, are really hard to render appropriately with screen reader and speech devices. There are other common accessibility challenges in content, many of which are familiar to students of Web accessibility design. These include:

  • Nonsequential text layout
  • No alternative (alt) text for images OR alt text that is not descriptive OR alt text that is too verbose
  • Alt text is provided when none is needed, for example, a decorative image
  • Graphics overlaying text
  • Color contrast ratios
  • Nonstandard fonts
  • Information presented in graphical design, such as a chart or graph, without a textual equivalent or alternative
  • Tables without a mark-up or summary to associate the information presented in each data cell with the relevant row and column headers

Information gains value from a broader audience. Establishing a standard for document content accessibility helps assure maximum return on your document investments and more importantly, allows for inclusive participation from all of your stakeholders.

Title image by tyle_r (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license