Five easy steps to more universal design

Image of multiple hands coming together - suggests universality and accessibility

Five easy steps to more universal design

Learning should lead to performance

We, educators, hope that people will learn something from us, remember what they learned, and ultimately use what they learned to improve or extend their performance—at work, in their personal lives, or both.

Lately, I’ve had the good fortune to apply the Learn→Remember→Use concept to myself.   I have recently met, heard, trained and collaborated with various people who know a lot about universal design.

In this post, I present the five most useful tips I learned, remembered, and now use, to make my learning materials more universally accessible.


First things first… what is ‘universal design’?

The concept of universal design applies to anything we design.  This includes furniture, machines, workspaces, learning materials, and more.

To me, universal design means designing anything so anyone can access and use it.  This is a simplistic definition.  To learn more, have a look at the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD).  CEUD offers:


My top five quick and easy tips to apply principles of universal design to learning materials


Tip 1. Download the DAT

Vision Australia has produced a Document Accessibility Toolbar (a DAT) that we can download and add to our Microsoft Word toolbars.  The DAT consolidates all the tools in MS Word that promote accessibility.  This means I can access everything Word offers to help me make more accessible documents, from one place.

Here’s what the DAT looks like, once installed:

Image showing how the Document Accessibility Toolbar appears beside other toolbars in MS Word, when installed.

CLICK HERE to download the Document Accessibility Toolbar from Vision Australia

I’ve started using the DAT to easily access functions such as Alt Text (see Tip 2 below).


Tip 2. Add Alt Text to images

What is Alt Text?

Alt Text is short for Alternative Text.  It is text that we embed behind an image, to explain what the image is. For example:

Cricket Ball

Alt Text for this image reads, Cricket Ball

Why use Alt Text?

Alt Text helps people with a sight impairment make sense of images used in our learning materials.  Images may include photographs, infographics, company logos, decorative banners, charts or icons, to name a few.

People with a sight impairment often rely on a document reader to make sense of learning materials.  When a document reader gets to an image, it will read the Alt Text embedded behind the image.  Therefore, well-written Alt Text will help people understand the information or concept that the image conveys.

We can also use Alt Text to identify images that are decorative and do not add meaning to the text.  For example, the discussion icon below doesn’t add meaning, so should be marked as decorative:

Document readers will pass over images marked as decorative, rather than trying to interpret them.

How to add Alt Text to an image

In MS Word:

When writing online publications such as this blog post, simply select the image then use the edit tool to add Alt Text.

To save time, add Alt Text to the master versions of images that you use often—for example, your logo or a discussion icon.  Then, copy and paste the master image throughout your document.  This way, you only enter Alt Text for a popular image, once.


Tip 3. Capitalise the first letter of words in hashtags

In May this year, I attended the Association for Talent Development’s International Conference and Expo for 2019 (#ATD2019) in Washington DC.

I attended a session by Maureen Orey called, No learner left behind: designing inclusive learning programs and materials.

I picked up many ideas from her session, but my number one takeaway stood out because it was SO simple—capitalise the first letter of each word in a hashtag.

So instead of writing #greatideasforhashtags, we should write #GreatIdeasForHashtags

Why this works

If we capitalise the first letter of each word in a hashtag, document readers will identify each word in the hashtag.  But if all letters are lowercase, the document reader will try to read all the words in the hashtag as one word… and that won’t end well!


Tip 4. Use a contrast checker

High contrast between text and background colour in a document makes any learning resource easier to read.  For example:

  • this text colour has a higher colour contrast, and is easier to read, than
  • this text colour.
Use a contrast checker to make sure text is universally readable

I’ve recently learned about this contrast checker.  It checks the font colour, size, and background colour of any text within a document and will tell you how easily (or not) people with a sight impairment or colour-blindness can read it.  I have found this very useful and have already started changing the colours and font sizes to make sure anyone can read materials that I write.


Tip 5. Add captions to videos

We know that captioning helps people understand video content, but I am a one-person operation with limited time and budget, so had always placed captioning in the ‘too hard’ basket.

Things have changed.

In June, I attended the Australian Institute for Training and Development (AITD)’s 2019 Workplace Learning Conference (#AWLC2019).  One session that resonated with me was delivered by the Learning Uncut team of Michelle Ockers,  Karen Moloney and Amanda Ashby.  The Learning Uncut website offers recordings of conversations with leaders in the learning, development and performance field.  Michelle, Karen and Amanda have ‘day jobs’ and created Learning Uncut just because they wanted to.  So at #AWLC2019, they shared how they produce their recordings—with transcripts—on a budget.

The Learning Uncut team made me think, if they can do it, perhaps I can, too.  So, I investigated how to add captions to videos.  My research took me to a video recording program which let me add captions so easily that even I could do it!

Here’s my first attempt at a video with captions

To create captions in this video, I let the software interpret and transcribe what I said.  I was amazed by how accurate the transcript was.  The only error was the spelling of my name—Chemène.  However, since most people struggle with my name, I forgave the software for getting it wrong.   Once I corrected my name, the captions were good-to-go.  I was surprised by how quick and easy the process was.


The free version of the program I used does not allow people to add captions to videos, but the paid version does.  With a cost of just $1 per month, I decided that investment in the paid version was worthwhile!


How I’ve used these ideas to create more universal learning materials

  1. I have downloaded the Document Accessibility Toolbar and added it to my version of MS Word
  2. I now add Alt Text to all images in learning materials I develop, and am working through existing materials and adding Alt Text to these
  3. I’m updating my templates to ensure a universally readable contrast between fonts and their backgrounds
  4. I now capitalise the first letter of each word in hashtags (#SoEasyToDo)
  5. I am producing more videos with captions!

These five tips have helped me begin working towards more universal learning materials.  I hope you’ll find them useful, too.  Of course, there remains much to learn—#LifeLongLearning!

  • Derek Bailey
    Posted at 20:38h, 30 August Reply

    Fascinating and highly informative article. Definitely got me thinking about own practice.

    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 15:20h, 31 August Reply

      Thanks, Derek. These ideas got me thinking, also, which is why I thought I’d share them in a post.

  • Jamie hayes
    Posted at 08:19h, 31 August Reply

    Great share and insights. What is the video caption software you use?

    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 15:22h, 31 August Reply

      Hi Jamie, Thanks for your comments. It’s nice to hear from you! To record videos, I’m using Screencastomatic:

      • Chemene Sinson
        Posted at 15:24h, 31 August Reply

        Forgot to mention… they’re not the only screen recording app that can offer captions… this one worked for me, but you may find a different one that works better for you.

  • Geoff Higginson
    Posted at 13:33h, 01 September Reply

    Saw this earlier Chemène. What a clear engaging way to introduce the concepts. What a great tool for my instructors and our program development folks. This will work wonders for our distance learning, thinking out of the old six week block intake for apprenticeship here, bringing us into what we feel is the future for our training system. Excellent paper. Thanks!

    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 16:34h, 01 September Reply

      Hi Geoff, thanks for your response. Your comments mean a lot, thank you! I hope your ‘program development folks’ get as much from the information as I did when others (who are far wiser than me) shared it with me!

  • Yvonne Perkins
    Posted at 16:57h, 01 September Reply

    A random check of LinkedIn led me here. Thank you for sharing about Universal Design, and particularly about captioning videos. I will add Screencastomatic to my list of things to check out. I am going to a CPD next weekend to learn how to make podcasts, The same principle should apply to them. The transcript should be available on the website together with the podcast.

    Captioning of videos and podcasts has another big advantage. By making the text available through captioning and transcriptions the video/podcast rank will gain a higher search engine ranking. There is no point creating a stunning video if no-one finds it when searching.

    That is the beauty of ‘Universal’ Design principles. By identifying and applying the underlying principles of design, so many issues are addressed and life is easier for all of us. Thanks for sharing about this!

    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 17:03h, 01 September Reply

      Hi Yvonne, thanks for your comments, and for highlighting yet another advantage of captions – that captioned videos, or videos with transcripts get a higher search engine ranking. I did not know that. Still so much to learn about universal design for me. I’m just getting started.

  • Marisa Unerkov
    Posted at 11:16h, 02 September Reply

    Thanks for sharing Chemene.

    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 14:23h, 03 September Reply

      My pleasure, Marisa!

  • Moya Hancock
    Posted at 10:02h, 11 September Reply

    This was really interesting Chemene. I only recently was speaking to an education academic who alerted me to this concept so it was good timing that I came across your post.

    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 11:14h, 11 September Reply

      I’m glad you found it interesting, Moya. I did, also. It is prompting some changes in materials I write.

  • Maddy Hopkins
    Posted at 10:30h, 11 September Reply

    As always, Chemene in awe of you


    • Chemene Sinson
      Posted at 11:15h, 11 September Reply

      You know it’s mutual, Maddy!

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