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We’re in this together – reaching everyone digitally during the COVID–19 pandemic

We’re in this together – reaching everyone digitally during the COVID–19 pandemic

For public health communications to be effective during a crisis, they must deliver clear, consistent and accessible messages that reach every person in society. They must additionally ensure that each of those people has a shared understanding of the role they play, as an active partner, in protecting the most vulnerable in our society and most importantly, saving lives.

This is the message the World Health Organisation (WHO) is trying to communicate right now, according to Frank M. Snowden (author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present) in an interview with the New Yorker. Snowden asserts that in order to face the events of the COVID–19 pandemic, “we need to realise that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere.”

This article examines some examples of public communications during the pandemic and assesses their effectiveness against the objectives of realising we are all in it together, reinforcing that what affects one affects all and protecting the most vulnerable in our society. We focus on local, national, regional and global health bodies, who are at the sharp end, and benchmark their communications against established universal standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and the UK Government Design Principles.

1. Text embedded within images

Cork Safety alerts posted the banner below on their news update page, highlighting social distancing, reducing interactions and avoiding physical contact. For users requiring a screen reader and other assistive technologies, the banner is impenetrable. But it’s not just users with impairment who may struggle with it – as the banner reduces responsively to smaller screen sizes, the text becomes exceptionally small. Remediation – separate imagery and text – and be very careful about the reuse of graphics which may be highly effective in one context, and less so in another.

Cork Safety Alerts

Retrieved from Cork Safety Alerts

2. Low contrast text and background ratios

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a produced a series of infographics to present information in an easy–to–digest format, and to encourage social sharing. There is very little contrast between foreground and background colours, resulting in reduced readability for the visually impaired and non–visually impaired alike. Remediation – increase contrast between foreground and background – to ensure a colour contrast ratio of 4.05 or more.  Resources such as COLOR SAFE are excellent in finding accessible palettes which closely match to corporate colours and branding systems.

WHO Covid 19 messages

Retrieved from WHO

3. Missing or unhelpful alternative text

WHO has set up a WhatsApp service in many countries across the globe to allow them to get up–to–the–minute information to their populations as effortlessly as possible. The alternate tag on the promotional image, which assistive technologies use to describe the image to users, repeats the file name of the image “WHO covid19 02 v1 v1”, which will obviously mean nothing to users. Remediation – add in a meaningful description of the image using the HTML “alt” image attribute.

World Health Organisation Whatsapp service

Retrieved from WHO

4. Incomplete or poorly constructed forms

The Department for Health and Social Care Jobs in Northern Ireland has launched a symptom checker to help users assess their likelihood of infection. It is missing key HTML elements (such as <fieldset> and <legend>) meaning that people using screen readers and other assistive technologies have no way of knowing what the purpose of the form is, or worse, won’t know that it is a form at all. Remediation – use the <fieldset> and <legend> elements when implementing a single multiple choice question (using radio buttons or checkboxes). These elements work together to tell screen readers that a group of form fields relate to each other, and to provide a label for the group. Read more on

  symptom checker

Retrieved from HSC

5. Correct labelling controls

The Department for Health and Social Care Jobs in Northern Ireland provides regular information to NI citizens, localised to the region. However, the date field is skipped and so the date stamp is not announced by a screen reader to the user. Users reliant on assistive technology will not know if the information is up–to–date. Remediation – use the correct HTML tag (<time>) or provide an aria label (aria–label=”aria–label attribute”).

HSC website

Retrieved from HSC

6. Modal windows and keyboard traps

Asthma UK want to keep in close contact with their asthma patients and their families during this critical period and use a pop–up window to encourage users to consider subscribing to their email newsletter. However, their website “background” remains in an active state behind the pop–up meaning that users who wish to navigate using a keyboard, or users reliant on assistive technologies to access the web (particularly those with motor impairment challenges for whom a mouse is too fussy) can’t logically navigate to the part of the screen they wish, or fully logically understand the separate of background and foreground content. Remediation – tighten up the underlying HTML code to clearly separate foreground and background content, and explore options other than a pop–up modal window as a means of promoting email newsletter signups.

Asthma UK website

Retrieved from Asthma UK

Why does this matter?

In his 2019 Click–Away Pound survey, Rick Williams estimates the number of people with impairment needs in the UK at 7.15m, up 1m in recent years. Microsoft further challenge our understanding of universal design by reminding us that society is diverse and people are in a constant state of flux “growing, changing, and adapting to the world around them every day.” In other words, effective communications to everyone is about more than exploring accessibility, inclusive design and universal design as discrete silos.

People experience situational, temporary or permanent impairments and this affects our ability to interact from one day to the next:

  • While a small proportion of the population is legally blind, many more people suffer from low–vision and even more still will find it difficult to use small screens in bright environments.
  • You may not be dyslexic but it’s often difficult to read large amounts of small text in a light font on a coloured background.
  • Everyone has encountered issues with small buttons and links on websites that are difficult to access on a mobile device.

In conclusion

More can be done around how major organisations communicate in times of crisis. Below we offer some final summary principles.

Improving content 

  • When writing content, always start with the most important information
  • Provide meaningful landmarks on the page
  • Structure pages meticulously using well–design heading structures
  • Adopt a Plain English approach for readability
  • Benchmark website readability and aim for the standards of writing for a 9–year–old

Making life easier for all users

  • Don’t rely on images to tell your users something
  • Ensure your forms are clearly labeled
  • Make sure button text clearly explains what action you want users to take
  • Publish videos with subtitles and an accompanying transcript that can be read by deaf–blind users
  • Where possible provide videos with signing
  • If you can’t make something accessible online, see if you can offer print options in large text, braille or audio format
  • Provide data tables in text format (Tyler Littlefield has done a brilliant job of this)

Organisations who claim we are all in this together, and want us to believe that we are all in this together need to design for all of us, together.

Cover image: Weaver, L. (Photographer) Retrieved from Unsplash / Modified from original

By Emma McCauley

Emma fulfilled a UX research role with Fathom in the first half of 2020 before moving on to take up a web researcher role at University of Ulster.

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