Making long Online Texts accessible

One of the most important components of text legibility is text length. Visually impaired, beginner and inexperienced readers as well as persons with memory and attention disorders do not like long deserts of text.

In the age of the internet and especially of smartphones, short texts are a good thing anyway. Shortness is not a value in itself. Rather, it is about limiting oneself to the relevant information and omitting everything that is unimportant in the context for the reader.

However, it is not always feasible to shorten a text. In this article, we want to look how to make long texts more accessible.

Several subpages

The simplest solution is to spread a text over several subpages.

From the reader's point of view, this is the worst solution. Most persons prefer scrolling to clicking. The probability that someone bounces is highest at the point where they should click to continue.

If you are looking for a specific piece of information, you have to scroll through several pages. Hardly anyone does that today.

Blind persons have to reorient themselves every time a new page is opened. This is difficult with poorly structured websites.

Linked table of contents

Rarely do you need all the information contained in a long text. Wikipedia solved this problem on the desktop by prepending the text with a linked table of contents. You can jump back and forth between the text passage and the table of contents using internal links.

The accordion

One variant of the linked table of contents that is becoming more common is the accordion. All headings of the text are displayed. If you click on a heading, the underlying text section expands.

This variant can generally be used by blind persons. It is important that the fold-out elements are recognizable as clickable for the screen reader. Otherwise, the blind person wonders why he finds lots of headings but no related information. And of course the unfolded text section should be legible for the blind. It should also be visible to all other users that something is clickable. Last but not least, the status, i.e. expanded or collapsed, should be communicated with ARIA.

One point of discussion is whether a section should remain expanded when clicking on another section. I think this makes sense in general, because you may want to look at several sections at the same time or compare information.

Which variant makes sense?

The distribution of many short texts on several subpages is no longer up-to-date. No one has an interest in carefully piecing together scattered information.

The linked table of contents is useful if texts are liked to be skimmed over. It also makes sense when someone is likely to look at multiple pieces of text. The table of contents also makes sense for heavily nested texts such as long Wikipedia articles. In my opinion, the accordion only makes sense when the reader is unlikely to read the entire text, for example in an FAQ..

The accordion principle is useful when a text is not structured according to a specific information hierarchy. That is, one does not have to have read a particular section in order to understand a particular later section. If certain information is necessary in any case, it should be placed in front and always visible without a click.

The accordion is particularly useful for the long FAQs. It rarely happens that you have to or want to read through all the questions and answers.

If the reader is likely to read the entire text, such as entertainment texts, it should be all on one page. Basically, a linked table of contents does not bother anyone, but it is actually only necessary if the text is too long. So if the probability that the text will be read in one go is rather low. In addition, a linked table of contents is particularly useful if the text headings from which it is generated are explaining semselves. In entertainment texts, teaser headings are used that are not self-explanatory.

Avoid continuous text deserts

For low readers, nothing is worse than deserts of continuous text, that is, one paragraph after another. It is particularly important to add variety to online texts. This has two advantages: 1. it breaks up the text a little and 2. each element creates additional orientation in long texts. Variety can happen through, for example
  • Headings
  • Lists and indented quotations
  • Tables
  • Images and infographics
  • Text boxes highlighted by borders or colors
However, boldfaces or italic text are not very helpful, as they are often not seen and italics can also decrease the readability.

Read more on accessible Texts