The Lowdown – October 2008

Staff Changes

Sharon Downs took the helm as the new Director of Disability Resource Center on June 1st.  Prior to accepting this position, Sharon served as the Associate Director for the department.  She has been with the DRC in some capacity since 1996, when she started out here as a sign language interpreter.  After that she ran PEPNet at UALR for seven years, providing outreach and technical assistance to postsecondary institutions in the state who served deaf and hard of hearing students, before being promoted to Associate Director.  Sharon had the pleasure of working closely with Susan Queller for all of those years, and looks forward to continuing to collaborate with the campus community to create usable, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable learning environments.

Melanie Thornton began as Associate Director in August.  She has served as the Director for Project PACE, a grant-funded DRC project, for nine years.  In that capacity, she collaborated with faculty, staff and administrators to create inclusive and equitable learning environments.  About her new role, Melanie says, “I am excited about collaborating more closely with students as we continue to work toward the vision of a campus that embraces disability as an aspect of diversity.”

Jan Chaparro will be in the office a couple of days a week for a while to ease the transition while Melanie finishes up the last year of the PACE grant.  You may know her from when she used to work full-time in our office as our Access Consultant.  We’re so grateful to her for helping us these next few months.

Email Usability

Email has become a primary method for communicating in the workplace and beyond.  It offers many advantages over other forms of communication and those advantages are maximized if email is prepared with principles of usability in mind.  Since most of us spend several hours a day reading and responding to email, we are becoming more judicious about how much time we will spend attempting to read an email message that is not well-designed.   In addition, email messages can be formatted in ways that make them inaccessible to those reading their mail with alternative devices, such as cell phones or screen reader technology.

HTML Versus Plain Text—the Great Debate

It is an irony that this tip sheet is being published in an HTML e-newsletter and that the flaws of sending email in HTML format will be pointed out here.   Email works best as plain text.  There is no doubt about that.  Sending messages in plain text is always the best option.  It can be easily read on any platform without the need for conversion.

On the other hand, there are clear advantages to sending email messages that include formatting.  Most of us have grown accustomed to reading formatted messages and find it easier on the eyes when headings are included and other forms of formatting break up the monotony of the page.  Formatting allows the reader to scan the message more easily for pertinent information.  And when an HTML formatted message is well-designed it grabs the reader’s attention and keeps them there longer.

If HTML worked predictably, it would be the preferred format, but email applications vary and what you send may not be what the reader sees.  What is sent in beautiful HTML on your end, may look like HTML code (a.k.a.  gobbledygook) on the reader’s end or if they are using an alternate device may simply be a blank message.

Example of HTML gobbledygook:
FONT face=Arial>Hi,
Bill!</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>Did you get the email message I sent yesterday?
Since you did not reply, I was wondering if you got it.  Please let me know
if you get this one!</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial>Thanks!</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=Arial></FONT> </DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=”Edwardian Script ITC” size=7>John</FONT></DIV>
</BODY></HTML>

Most email programs do send a plain text alternative that can be read by many applications.  The problem with this is that the success of the creation of this alternate format and the readability of the message created varies from software to software—both the software used to create it and the software used to read it.

So what is the answer to the debate?   Stick with plain text.  But, if you are going to send HTML-based email messages and newsletters, proceed with caution and follow these tips.

Email Messages

  1. Keep formatting simple.
  2. If you include images that are important to your message, describe them in the text.
  3. Do not send your message as an image.  Some people create a document and convert it to an image and then simply paste it into the message.  This will be unreadable by many of your readers—including those who are blind and using screen readers.
  4. Do not send your message as an attachment only.   You have probably received emails that say:  “See attached” and include a PDF or Word Document.  If you want to send a flier along with an email message, that’s great, but include the text from that message within the email itself.
  5. Do not reply within the other person’s message.  Instead, cut and paste the comments you want to respond to within your own message.
  6. Do not rely on color to distinguish between your comments and theirs.  Use some text indicator to differentiate between your comments and theirs.
  7. Make sure subject headers are descriptive of the message contents.

If you use MS Outlook*:

  1. Choose “include original message text” in your email options settings.  It is best if forwarded messages and messages to which you reply are included in the text below rather than created as an attachment.
  2. Remove the “greater than” sign from the “prefix each line with” box.  By default, Outlook adds the “>” symbol to the beginning of each line in a forwarded message or the original message to which someone has replied.  Since the screen reader reads all of these as “greater than” it makes it less than enjoyable to read.

Email Newsletters

  1. Include a web option.  The first sentence of your message should be “if you have trouble viewing this message, please go to…” with a URL where you have the newsletter posted.
  2. Create the newsletter with a quality web design application.  This will allow you to include alternative text for images and format using inline CSS.
  3. Test it out.  Check to see how your newsletter looks in a variety of email applications such as Outlook, Gmail, and Yahoo.
  4. Stay informed.  Good design for email applications is a moving target.  Read current articles about what works and doesn’t work in HTML email.  Good design of a web page does not necessarily translate to good design of an email newsletter.

A Final Word

As I was preparing this article, the Office of Communications sent out an announcement that provides an excellent example of a best practice in email usability.  They provided a nice graphic design and included all of the text from that image below the image.  They also provided a link at the very top of the email message that allows the user to view the message in a browser window.  To view this great example, go to:  http://ualr.edu/communications/assets/emails/picnic/picnic.html

For more information, contact:

Melanie Thornton
Director, Project PACE
Associate Director, Disability Resource Center
mpthornton@ualr.edu
501.650.2239 (voice)
501.569.3217 (voice/tty)
ualr.edu/pace

Suggested Resources

2008 Email Design Guidelines – Campaign Monitor Blog: http://www.campaignmonitor.com/blog/archives/2008/05/2008_email_design_guidelines.html

Text Email Newsletter Standard:
http://www.headstar.com/ten/

Jim Byrne:  How to Create Accessible Email
http://www.jimbyrne.co.uk/show.php?contentid=93

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