Abbreviations – accessibility for web writers

The accessibility guidelines require that we expand or define any abbreviations we use in our content. Often it’s even better to avoid using them.

We use abbreviations because they save time when talking and writing. However, some abbreviations are not widely used and may confuse users if you include them in your web content.

Abbreviations are shortened word forms such as ‘Dr’ for Doctor and ‘St’ for Street. They also include:

  • Acronyms: a single word formed from letters taken from a group of words, and pronounced as a word. Some examples are TESOL (teaching English as a second language),  AGIMO (Australian Government Management Office), and WANAU (Web Accessibility Network for Australian Universities)
  • Initialisms: like acronyms, but some people treat them as a different type of abbreviation because they are not pronounced as a word.  Some examples are CD (compact disc), GST (Goods and Services Tax), and ATO (Australian Taxation Office).

Explaining abbreviations

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 recommend explaining an abbreviation the first time you use it on a web page, or explaining it each time if you use the same abbreviation to mean different things on a single page (Dr for Doctor and Drive, for instance).  The guidelines indicate that you don’t need to worry about explaining abbreviations when they:

  • Have become so common, they’re considered part of the language. Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) are good examples. Many people don’t know or remember the expanded form of these words
  • Are business names, such as IBM (which was International Business Machines but is now known as IBM).

Explanations are not the best solution

Explaining abbreviations is not always the best approach. If our target audience is familiar with them, an explanation is redundant. Otherwise, we should try to avoid using them. Here are five reasons why.

1. Can be confusing or annoying

Some people will be confused, even if you explain the abbreviation. Every instance of it can be troubling, or even annoying, because it is unfamiliar or hard to pronounce.

Abbreviations can have this effect on anyone. A participant in our recent usability testing commented:

“Institutions and governments love acronyms. They live and breathe by acronyms, which mean everything to those who are used to them, but mean very little, and are just a confusion for people who don’t use them.”

2. Meaning can be mistaken

Abbreviations are not always unique. Users may mistake the meaning of an abbreviation you use, with another they are more familiar with. You might mean the graphic file format when you use PNG, while a user may think you mean Papua New Guinea.

Sometimes the context isn’t clear enough to prevent users making this mistake. Several years ago when testing university websites, I noticed that several students were confused by the abbreviation EFTSL. It meant ‘equivalent full-time study load’ and was used in discussing course costs.  Many students thought it had something to do with ‘electronic funds transfer’, though they couldn’t account for the meaning of ‘SL’.

3. Explanation may not be noticed

Because people tend to scan-read web pages, some may not notice the explanation of the abbreviation if they don’t read the part of the content where you first explained it. And it can be annoying having to scroll up and search for the explanation.

4. Takes more effort to learn and remember

Every time you use an unfamiliar abbreviation, your reader has to learn and then remember it. This adds to the cognitive effort required to read your content.

For some—in particular, people with dyslexia, short term memory problems or attention or focus disorders—this extra effort may be too much to ask.

5. Can break reading or task flow

If you’ve provided the explanation through a link to a glossary, users may need to click on the link, navigate to the glossary and then return and resume reading the original page. This breaks the flow of reading and the user’s task.  Some may get distracted or forget what they were doing or and not finish their task.

Even if you’ve included the explanation as a pop-up or mouse-over, users still have to hover over or click on the word, and again, reading flow is interrupted.  People with disabilities that make it hard to maintain reading flow will be more inconvenienced than other users.

How to avoid using abbreviations

Use a pronoun

Original Rewritten
The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) will be upgrading … DBCDE will also provide funding … The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy will be upgrading … We will also provide funding …
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) sets out the grounds for … The DDA also … The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 sets out the grounds for … It also…
A Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) can find small amounts of blood in your bowel motions. The FOBT involves taking samples from two or three bowel motions using a test kit. A Faecal Occult Blood Test can find small amounts of blood in your bowel motions. It involves taking samples from two or three bowel motions using a test kit.

Use a word taken from the name

Original Rewritten
The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) will be upgrading … DBCDE will also provide funding … The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy will be upgrading … The Department will also provide funding …
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) sets out the grounds for … The DDA also … The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 sets out the grounds for … The Act also …
A Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) can find small amounts of blood in your bowel motions. The FOBT involves taking samples from two or three bowel motions using a test kit.  A Faecal Occult Blood Test can find small amounts of blood in your bowel motions. The test involves taking samples from two or three bowel motions using a test kit.

Use the long form

In some cases, you may be able to use the long form rather than abbreviating it.

Original Rewritten
Prof Elliott’s consulting rooms are at 10 Surrey Ct, Endeavour Hills. Professor Elliott’s consulting rooms are at 10 Surrey Circuit, Endeavour Hills.

Don’t use one if you only use the long form once

If you only refer to the long form of an abbreviation once on the page, there is no need to introduce the abbreviated form.

References

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