Have you ever been asked to find a technology solution for *flailing-arms-make-it-better*?!? Or attempted requirements gathering only to get a detailed explanation of how to do a task in the current system?
As anyone who has done requirements gathering can tell you, it’s a bit of an art form. (Yes, pun intended in the title!)
You want to meet the needs of the people who will use the solution, but it can be challenging to understand the needs of people who may not know how to articulate them in ways that translate well to technical specifications. While business process mapping is not an uncommon part of requirements analysis, it can be hard to get started if you’re new to it and hard to know how to get the necessary information.
Apologies if you came here expecting that I was a playground designer, although there are people who make accessible play areas!
There is no perfect way to make things 100% accessible to everyone because people are different. I state that upfront as a reminder to myself as much as to anyone else that this work is not perfect, that it is messy, and that none of this should stop us from working to make things more accessible to more people right now.* I do not and I am not going to get everything right. I’m sure I’ve failed on a lot of these points in previous slide decks and I will continue to make mistakes. None of these tips are foolproof, and this list is not exhaustive. Perhaps you’ll read it and say you knew all these things already—and that you have some things to teach me! (Which would be great! Please do.) But, hey, maybe some of this will be new to some people. So, I will continue on with my imperfect notes on how I’ve been trying to make my slides more accessible.
Some of these things I learned from the speaker guide for NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, some from a class in graduate school on making information accessible (taught by the awesome Dr. Renee Hill!), some from independent learning about accessibility, and some things by trial and error.
The context of this post is creating slides that I’m preparing to present, such as for a conference talk, as opposed to other purposes. Although I may sometimes mention things related to presenting, the focus will be on the slides themselves. I most often use PowerPoint, so I mention some specific things in the version of the program I have, so if you have a more recent version or use something else for creating slides, those functions might be called something else or work a little differently.
Here are some things I’ve been learning and working at incorporating in my slides:
Always check the template (and any other colored elements you are choosing) to ensure you have sufficient color contrast. Unfortunately, those default templates are not necessarily accessible – even when they are labeled as such. You’ll want to check things like the color contrast for people who are colorblind or have low vision. If you like to create your own templates, start with a color palette that has sufficient contrast. Of note, color contrast is not only about the colors, but sometimes about the size and font weight. Black text on a white background will work at any legible size, but certain color combinations that are readable at font size 40 will not be readable by everyone at a font size 20. While it’s not perfect, if your combination doesn’t work if printed in grayscale, you should probably adjust the color palette.
Make sure every slide has a title. Occasionally, I will not use the template title area, or because I am not using a template, it is unclear which text is the title of the slide. While it might be obvious to a sighted person, it’s important to make sure someone using a screen reader would be able to use titles to help navigate through the slides. In PowerPoint, if you turn on “Check accessibility,” an Accessibility tab will be added to the ribbon at the top. You use the button for setting the slide title to set a specific text box to be the slide title.
Include an agenda and let people know what point in the presentation they’re at. This is more of a presentation tip, but it’s helpful to orient people to what’s going to be covered and to give people a sense of where they are in the agenda. This can be especially helpful for people with cognitive or learning disabilities, but it’s helpful to everyone. I usually include a slide with a numbered list of the topics or sections, and then each section starts with a section header slide that references the section number and where we are in the presentation. (If it’s hard for me to break it out this way, then it probably means the presentation needs some further organization.)
Use a font size of at least 18, but preferably larger! Using a larger font size also prevents you from putting too much text per slide, as slide are intended to be presented. If you truly need to write that much, you are writing a report! Or at least an article or blog post. They’re fine formats, but they are formats that meant to be read at your own pace instead of at the speed at which someone is giving a presentation.
IF YOU WRITE IN ALL CAPITALIZED LETTERS FOR VERY LONG PORTIONS OF TEXT, THIS IS VERY DIFFICULT FOR EVERYONE TO READ. That took you an extra moment to read and comprehend, didn’t it?
Leave the bottom 20% of the slide blank so that captions won’t cover up any content. Occasionally you might be presenting within a platform where the captions are not on top of the slides, but if you’re not sure, the bottom is often where captions are placed on a screen. (Unsure if there will be captions? Ask! It doesn’t matter whether you personally need them. Other speakers and attendees might, and they shouldn’t have to ask.)
Include alternative text for images, videos, diagrams, and other visual elements that are relevant. Avoid text in images; simply use the text. (This is inaccessible both to people using screen readers and to people using translation software or other text-based tools.) For videos, you’ll need to consider both captions and video descriptions (a description of what is happening visually) so that the content is accessible to audience members who are blind or D/deaf. You can mark decorative images as decorative and skip the alt text, although it’s worth asking the question of what those images are adding to your presentation.
Plan to describe the images verbally if they’re relevant. Okay this isn’t about the slides, but during the presentation, make sure you verbally describe the visual elements that you created alternative text for. Or if you are demonstrating something live, then describe what you’re doing – like if you were on a cooking show.
Speaker descriptions: Some people say the speakers should describe themselves, and others say this isn’t really useful information. Within the blind community, there are a lot of differing opinions on speaker descriptions. Unless I’m asked to describe myself visually, I tend to use the guideline of whether it is relevant. If the topic is related to career development, then the fact that I am an Asian American woman in my mid-30s is relevant. If I am talking about working remotely, then it makes sense to reference my surroundings. If I am showing people how to create diagrams, then a description of my visual appearance and what sighted people can see in my background feels performative rather than adding anything to an understanding of the topic.
Review the order of object order on your slides. If someone is using a device like a screen reader, you’ll want them to go through everything on your slides in the correct order. An easy way to test this is to use the Tab key to tab through each object (title, text box, image, etc.) on each slide. You can usually right click to move an object forward or backward. (Reading order starts in the back and moves forward to end in the front.)
My process for creating slides
Sometimes it’s difficult to take a collection of tips and figure out how to apply them in practice. My process for creating slides and presentations may be different from yours, but here’s a rough summary of my current process:
Draft learning objectives, usually as a document.
Use the learning objectives to draft an outline, usually in the same document.
Start a new slide file and pick a template.
Check that the template color contrast is sufficient. (Turn on accessibility checker to help me with this if it’s available.)
Edit the template if needed.
Start building out the content in the slides – usually putting the bullet points from the outline as the temporary slide titles.
Work on developing the text and the speaking points in whatever order I can get it to come out in. Usually I put in placeholders for visuals that I need, but also sometimes information that I need to go find. I typically turn off or ignore the accessibility checker during this part.
Lots of iterating, editing, filling in those placeholders, refining speaking points.
Once the visual elements are finalized, I write alternative text. (I usually turn the accessibility back on at this point because it helps me tick off images that need alt text.)
If I forgot to describe something in the speaking points, then I incorporate the description of visuals.
Review and address any other accessibility issues that come up – with the exception of slide order, which I leave until last in case I need to make other changes.
Go through the presentation as a whole, both the slides and practicing the speaking, to make sure everything works together as a whole (and within the allotted time).
Check the slide order by tabbing through each object on each slide and adjusting the object order as needed.
If there’s a method for making the slides available to attendees ahead of the presentation (so they can review as needed, at their own pace, using the appropriate tools, ahead of time), then I do that.
What else? I’m open to learning how to do things better!Email me and let me know if you learned anything new from this post, have suggestions, or what your process looks like for creating slides.
If you’ve ever managed a project with a long timeframe or been responsible for implementing a major change, then you know that, well, things change. Inevitably, you’ll discover something that hadn’t been accounted for or that wasn’t as clear at the beginning, or perhaps, something in your context will have changed. Maybe there’s a new opportunity you’ll want to be able to seize.
You may have even identified some potential risks and come up with plans to mitigate them. It is, however, impossible to know everything that could possibly happen or change or that needs to be accounted for when you’re initially planning a project. One of the best ways to plan for the unexpected is to plan for change, to build in a margin for it. That’s why it’s helpful to save for an emergency fund, and why you build extra time and contingency into a project budget.
You can also plan to make changes, even if you don’t know what the changes will be. Worse comes to worse, your plan works out.
Many people plan regular times to check in and evaluate progress on a project, especially a change management project, but even better is to regularly ask the question of what changes need to be made and evaluate the plan itself.
Plan to change your plan
Here’s how to prepare for course adjustments before you start really diving in:
Schedule check-in meetings and put them on the calendar along with an agenda. How many and how often depends on the scope of what you’re doing and the timeframe. Perhaps you might split it into thirds or around key milestones or phases. If this is more of a continuous thing than a discrete project, then figure out a timeframe when enough will have happened to answer some key questions, but not so much time that it will be hard to change course.
Determine how it will be decided whether to adjust course and how. This could be by consensus, by the project lead having final say, or some type of measure (e.g., as long as our revenue is on track within 5%, we stick to the plan)—or some combination.
When planning out the work, plan the first third in the most detail, the second third with some detail, and leave the last third at a high-level. This will make it easier to make changes since you’ll have left some planning (e.g., who is doing what specific tasks during which week or month) until after the check-in point.
If this is a change management project (e.g., implementing a new system and new processes), having scheduled check-ins to review and adjust the plan can also support your cause. One thing people worry about during a big change is that it will be terrible, it will make things worse, and they will be stuck with it. (That can happen, of course!) However, transparency about how changes will be made and opportunities to provide feedback or request adjustments (e.g., including some time to work out the new time tracking process before the summer staff join) can alleviate some concerns. You can engage them as beta testers and partners in working out any issues before the full rollout.
Considerations for course adjustments
Here’s are some things you might want to discuss at the start of the project and then during check-ins:
What is the desired outcome at the end of this scope of work/part of the project?
What assumptions was this planned work based upon? Have things changed? You will likely need to change your plan if an assumption no longer holds. If it was a constraint, then maybe you don’t need to change anything but this opens up other opportunities.Note:Assuming that the plan will lead towards the desired outcome is an assumption.
Does it look like we’re making progress towards the desired outcome? This is really about whether it is working for the team/organization or not.
What changes do we need to make to our plan? This can be adding things, subtracting things, or modifying how you go about them (e.g., method, strategy, timing, who does what).
Do we need to change how we evaluate the need for course adjustments at our next check-in?
When the only constant is change, might as well plan for it!
There are things that someone can show us how to do, like how to tie our shoelaces or how to fry an egg. Then there are the things you can really only learn by doing: riding a bicycle, managing people. However, it’s always helpful to have some frameworks for how to approach the new thing as you’re learning while you’re doing it.
Every time I have to do something new that is big enough in scale to warrant a plan (or feels overwhelming enough that I want to make a plan), I start with what I call the “What’s Needed Exercise.”
This exercise is very simple: I ask myself what is needed to make this thing happen and don’t stop writing (or typing) until I run out of ideas of things that might be needed. Then I organize them.
Regardless of what the new thing is – a volunteer training, version 2 of a custom grants management system, moving to a new country – there are typically a few categories of things that are needed.
Here are some prompts for thinking through what’s needed:
What are the steps or tasks to do the big new thing?
What decisions need to be made? By whom?
What information* is needed? How do we get this information (ask someone, conduct design research, analyze the website data)?
Which people are needed and for what? (This could be people on a MOCHA or DARCI chart, or this could be people to do X thing, or it could be that you need an expert in alligator wrestling.)
What supplies, tools, equipment, systems, or venues are needed?
What time or budget or commitments are needed?
*If you can’t articulate what success looks like and how you’ll be able to tell that you’ve made it to your destination, then you’ll want to add to the list of information that is needed (or decisions to be made).
I don’t try to answer those questions in order, though you can if it’s helpful. Typically, I’ll make my massive list (in a document or a spreadsheet or as sticky notes on a board) and then organize them.
Here are some groups I find useful:
To find out
Once they’re organized a little bit, it will be easier to see the dependencies. Then you can begin to sequence them.
And there’s your game plan! Well, okay, you probably have a specific timeframe for getting this thing done, or you might be working on this with other people, and so you’ll need to work on the timeline and how you and the others will work together. But this can get you started on estimating the level of effort, how much time you’ll need to allocate, and when it can fit on the calendar, how many people (and which ones) you need to get to help you, and so on. Here’s a way you can start when you’re not sure where to start!
What approaches or tactics have worked well for you when planning to do something new? I’d be interested to hear what works well for you or how it goes if you try this out. Of course, it’s common, when you do something for the first time, that things don’t always go according to plan and you find yourself having to make some course adjustments along the way. Stay tuned for a post on how to plan to change the plan…
People are saying things. They seem to be words. They seem to be in some type of sentence structure. But what are they saying? Or perhaps you are trying to read something that is written in some language that somebody would understand—and that person is not you.
And it’s too much. It’s too much. It begins to wash over you, like the background chatter of other people’s conversations at a café. Then all of a sudden, you jolt and remember you were supposed to be paying attention because now you are supposed to do something or answer a question and that would be…what, exactly?
Having moved to a country where I am still learning the language (and likely will be for a long time), this is constant. So when a client mentioned that they were working with some consultants* on something they knew nothing about, and that they found it difficult to follow the conversations and be proactive—it made me think of all the parallels to learning a foreign language.
My strategy for tackling this inability is to find as many handholds as possible, and to use one to get to the next—the way a climber uses this handhold or that foothold to launch themselves to the next one and eventually climb up the mountain.
What does this mean in understanding a language? That you go from hearing something like the wah-wah-wah of grownups talking on Peanuts (really a trombone with a mute) to hearing something that you know is a question to hearing, “Would you like something-something?” And for a topic that’s not your area of expertise, maybe you go from hearing “acronym jargon jargon jargon” to “Some government agency announced that they are making changes to policy-that-applies-to-organizations-that-work-with-children.” Then you can hear that and know whether or not you need to pay attention (filtering!) based on whether or not your organization works with children.
Here are some tactics for finding handholds (or footholds) when you don’t understand the conversation:
Start by identifying words—as in, you can tell when one word ends and the next begins. (This is probably more for learning an actual foreign language rather than a different work language, but in the latter case, you likely already have this down.)
Use props, diagrams, or gestures as much as possible. As someone who had to order custom sized curtains for her very tall windows using elementary level Japanese—and had them come out the way I intended—I attribute my success to being able to point towards different samples in the store, gesturing, and the diagrams on the order form for getting the measurements into the correct fields. However, diagrams are also helpful for getting everyone on the same page when you’re dealing with something abstract (data definitions) or working with people across different disciplines.
Learn and leverage patterns. For example, I knew that generally after you get seated at a restaurant, a server will come and ask if you are ready to order. So I can point at the menu even if I don’t actually understand the words in the question. Familiarity with patterns is helpful not only in routine interactions but also in navigating websites—like which button is “cancel” vs. “submit”! A work example of this might be that you are working on a project to implement a donor database instead of using spreadsheets. The pattern, when you implement something new, is that this is a change from how people are used to working, and changes require some management in order to stick. So even if you know nothing about databases, you can ask about the change management plan.
Become familiar with the words that answer who/what/where/when/how. This might sound silly if you’re say, a fundraiser trying to understand how to accept a cryptocurrency donation, since maybe you and the person explaining it to you both speak English. However, it’s still helpful to be able to tell which wah-wah-wah is the name of a form of cryptocurrency and which wah-wah-wah is a service or an institution that you need to coordinate the process with.
Leverage what you know as a jumping off point and grab onto the next handhold. When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of your own language. Let’s say you don’t understand algorithms and your teenage nephew sighs with exasperation every time you ask about a new social media platform. However, the key communications principle of needing to understand your audience doesn’t change, even if who they are and what appeals to them and what’s the best way to reach them keeps evolving.
This can also mean you need to let go of something you do know. A climber has to let go of the holds they’re using to make their way to the next one and keep climbing up. Maybe getting a foothold in being more inclusive means letting go of only considering “they” to be a plural pronoun not to be used to refer to a single person.
Then build connections back to what you know. Turn that leap (from one foothold to the next) into a bridge that you can traverse back and forth and build upon in the future. For example, maybe you learn that the social media algorithm will show people more videos that are similar to ones they liked or spent time interacting with. Now you can separate the mechanics of which videos get promoted from the principle that people want to watch things that are interesting to them. This allows you to ask separate questions about how that similarity is determined (by tags or metadata vs. users like you) and questions about what is most interesting to your audience.
While I am fairly comfortable working and communicating across different work languages (and disciplines), I am curious to hear what has worked well for you! Please share any other tips.
*As a consultant, my stance is that you’ve hired me the consultant to help you. That includes making sure you actually understand enough to be able to make informed decisions (and implement the solution, if that’s the plan). Otherwise, my job is not done yet! So if you’re not understanding what a consultant is telling you, it’s fair to ask them to re-explain in order for you to understand.