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“Big A Accessibility” and “little a accessibility” Tips for Data Visualization

Updated on: Nov 7th, 2022
Data Visualization
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Photo of Ann K. Emery typing with words over the top that say "How Do I Make My Graphs Accessible?"

“Ann, how can I make my graphs more accessible??”

Accessibility means different things to different people.

I see two main types: Big A and little a.

  1. Big A Accessibility means that our graphs meet official accessibility guidelines so that they’re understandable for people with disabilities. In the United States, that means 508 Compliance.
  2. Little a accessibility means that our graphs are understandable for non-technical audiences; skimmable; and generally not a garbage heap of jargon.

Both Big A and little a are central in my work.

Here’s where you can learn more.

Ann K. Emery is holding a laptop. The words say, "Big A" Accessibility: Making sure graphs pass official 508 compliance guidelines.

Big A Accessibility

Here’s a (partial) list of everything you’d need to do to pass 508 compliance guidelines.

Directly Label

Remove legends and directly label the data.

Add White Outlines

Outline the touching, filled shapes with white borders (i.e., cells in a heat map, slices in a pie chart, locations in maps, rectangles in stacked bar charts).

Make Sure Graphs are Legible for People with Color Vision Deficiencies

Red-green colorblindness isn’t the only type, but it’s most common.

And, it’s the most problematic for data visualization. We love to use “stoplight coding,” especially in dashboards. We’ve all seen dashboards where green means “we met the target” and red means “we didn’t.”

For people with color vision deficiencies, those reds and greens just look like yellows all blended together.

Tips:

  • Avoid red-green color combos (try red-blue, orange-green, or orange-blue for stoplight coding instead).
  • Use direct labels.
  • Test your drafts.

Make Sure Graphs are Grayscale-Friendly

Printing is less common nowadays, especially with so many people working from home indefinitely. Who wants to pay for their own color ink?!

Your infographics, reports, slideshows, and reports might still be printed.

And they might be printed in grayscale.

Let’s plan for grayscale printing ahead of time to make sure the visuals will still be legible, just in case they’re printed.

Tips:

Use Plenty of Color Contrast

The other night, as I was reading my 4-year-old a bedtime story, I was struggling to read the words on the page. The book used colored font against a colored background, and the words were kinda small. Those were all fixable problems!

Tips:

Use Larger Fonts

Increase the font size (I recommend 11+ for documents and 18+ for slideshows, not Excel and Tableau’s puny size 9 defaults).

Again, the software defaults don’t help us here. Their defaults are usually way too small.

Add Alt Text

Add alt text to all images for standalone documents (reports, dashboards, infographics, etc.), including graphs.

Molly Burke’s Instagram is my favorite alt text inspo.

Ann K. Emery is holding a laptop. The words say, "little a" accessibility: Making sure graphs are easy to read, especially for non-technical audiences.

little a accessibility

These are techniques that won’t necessarily help you pass official accessibility guidelines… but are still a good idea if you want to make charts that people actually understand and use.

Actually Use Graphs

Use less text and more graphs!!!

Add graphs alongside those boring bullet points.

Choose the Right Chart

Go beyond the bar chart.

Use Data Storytelling

Use data storytelling, which I define as:

  • writing takeaway titles instead of topical titles and
  • highlighting one key finding at a time in a darker color.

Color-Code by Category

One of my favorite techniques of all time.

Color-coding by category helps us chunks the information into manageable pieces.

We can color-code in presentations, reports, dashboards, and one-pagers.

Lower the Reading Level

I’ve written about reading levels several times:

Lower the Numeracy Level

Here’s how.

Use a Consistency Text Hierarchy

Make sure all the Heading 1s match, all the Headings 2s match, and so on.

Use Horizontal Text

It’s faster to read than diagonal and vertical text.

Avoid Underlines

Only use underlines for hyperlinks (not for headings).

Avoid ALL CAPS

It feels like shouting and takes longer to read than mixed case letters.

Place Text Next to the Graph

Not on the next page so that it’s faster to read.

Add Symbols and Icons

They make graphs easier to navigate and they boost the memorability of our findings.

Presentation-Specific Techniques

Talk about one thing at a time so that what your audience is hearing and seeing match.

Use a microphone!!! In-person and online. I don’t care if you think your voice can fill the room. It can’t, especially for people who are hearing-impaired. For virtual presentations, purchase a microphone. Or, at the bare minimum, wear the earbuds that came with your phone (because they likely have a built-in microphone). Tinny, echo-y sounds are hard for all of us.

Report-Specific Techniques

Follow the 30-3-1 approach. Limit the body to 30 pages (or less!), and then create a separate 3-pager and 1-pager.

Use visual appendices instead of black and white appendices to make the patterns more obvious.

Dashboard-Specific Techniques

Don’t expect busy, non-technical audiences to interact with your dashboards.

Involve the End Users

Involve the end users in the sensemaking process, e.g., by using data placemats and by following the Choose Your Own Adventure method in presentations.

Listen to what users say they need… but give them what they actually need.

Remember the Humans Behind the Data

I love this example.

Your Turn

Which of these techniques are you already using?

Why techniques might you try in the future?

More about Ann K. Emery
Ann K. Emery is a sought-after speaker who is determined to get your data out of spreadsheets and into stakeholders’ hands. Each year, she leads more than 100 workshops, webinars, and keynotes for thousands of people around the globe. Her design consultancy also overhauls graphs, publications, and slideshows with the goal of making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.

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