We haz audio, check it out

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett November 16, 2020 Audio version
You can now get audio versions of our content directly from the story headline.

microphone audio
(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

I'm pleased to announce that we now have audio versions of diginomica content. I'll get into the detail further on but will start with some background. 

Earlier in the year, I spoke with colleagues who promote accessibility as a first order of priority when designing digital technologies. I hadn't given it a lot of thought, confining myself to topics like larger scale font 'versions' of diginomica. But as I spoke with more people, it became clear that we've missed an important trick. 

As a person who has worn corrective eyewear for more than 45 years, I understood the typeface and size issue. But as a person with family members who are dyslexic, I should have realized that being able to read is not just a matter of vision. It's also a matter of how the brain processes information. Anyone with dyslexia will tell you just how incapacitating that condition can be and how frustrating it is being perceived as 'slow' when in reality it's nothing to do with a learning ability but how the brain processes text.

Beyond those who are dyslexic, there are those whose vision is so impaired that it is impossible for them to read text at all. I'm slowly drifting into that group as someone who has age related wet macular degeneration. My central vision (for now only in one eye) is blurred and so makes it difficult for me to see what I am reading when using both eyes. It is a treatable condition through unpleasant but painless injections to the eye but it is unlike dry macular degeneration which cannot be readily treated. Macular degeneration doesn't go away and will likely get worse over time.

The bad news for anyone reading this is that macular degeneration mostly afflicts older people and with life expectancy rising, there's a good chance that many more people will develop this condition. There are experimental treatments available but there is no real cure. It is one of those mysterious conditions for which underlying causes are surmised rather than proven. 

Still others have conditions that make it difficult for them to concentrate on the written word for sustained periods of time. Given that much of what we write is long-form, that could be an impediment to their ability to consume content in which they'd otherwise be interested. And then there are those who prefer audio anyway - that's the podcast generation. 

So it was that with admonitions ringing in my ears and the thought of trying to suck less that I started to investigate ways to help a section of the crowd we might not otherwise reach or for whom diginomica isn't readily accessible. Enter audio. 

Today, as each piece of content is produced, eidtors can decide if they want the content in audio form as well as text. Not every piece of content readily lends itself to the audio format. Content with lists and content that carries many images are not easily turned into audio and still make sense to the person consuming audio. There are ways to overcome these issues but for now, we are being selective as to which stories get the audio treatment. That's not to deny access but to help us ease our way into making all content audio friendly. 

This feature requires that we think differently about the editorial decisions we make. For example, we will have to ensure that when we quote a person that we identify them in text so that people know what they're listening to. We've not had to think about that too much in the past. We also have to think more carefully about content structure, ensuring for example that we don't abruptly end stories with quotes but bring stories to a natural sounding conclusion. These are good challenges to have since they help us up our content game generally. We will also need to help content partners who may choose to have audio versions of their content available to a wider audience. For my part, I'll have to do a lot better in catching typos!

Once a story gets the audio 'treatment,' it has an 'audio version' clickable icon at the top of the story. We hope that icon will be large and clear enough for most readers to see. When the icon is clicked, a bar style player appears at the bottom of the page and acts as an audio player with pause, rewind and advance controls. Again, we hope that the way we've implemented this is adequate, at least for the moment. 

This is very much a Minimum Viable Product or MVP version so don't be surprised if it doens't have all the bells and whisltes you see in other audio content. We want reader help in understanding what we should do next beyond style improvements so please, leave a comment, contact Den, Tweet your thoughts - whichever works best for you.

In the spirit of #evilplans, we have five current ideas of our own.

  1. Automatic production to podcast platforms.
  2. The creation of topical playlists.
  3. The development of dedicated category players for those interested in specific topics.
  4. Different voice version. For example, user-selected male or female voice.
  5. Supported audio versions that follow a specific event. 

Does this sound like a good list to you or do you have other audio priorities you'd love to see. 

Finally, this is one of those functional improvements for which I think we can be proud and of which I will use the e-word, excited. Inline audio takes diginomica forward in a purposeful manner while expanding the possibilities for those who grapple with a set of common impairments. What's not to like?

Oh yes - this story carries an audio version. Enjoy.