How you organize and present information plays a big role in determining the usability and inclusivity of your electronic content. Visual formatting—layout, spacing, color, and font selection—all affect the degree to which information can be easily read and understood. We know this from age-old principles of graphic design as well as modern studies of usability.

Yet we mustn’t rely on visual formatting alone to convey important information. That’s because not every reader will see your document the way you designed it due to varying screen sizes, printing, and photocopying. Others won’t see it at all; they will hear it using text-to-speech software. Thus, Visual formatting should be combined with structural formatting.

Structural formatting is accomplished with Headings. Headings are used to create an outline, or table of contents, that helps users to navigate the content more efficiently. This is especially true for readers who navigate using assistive technology. Thus, using headings is a very simple method of increasing the usability of your electronic content. You can apply headings in Word documents, on the web, and in Canvas courses.

  • Use headings to provide a page structure or outline
  • Nest appropriately - do not skip levels
  • Use headings to indicate sections of content. Avoid over-using them, especially for links.

Further resources on appropriate use of headings:

Word provides one powerful tool—Styles—for managing both visual and structural formatting. Styles control the appearance of text (size, color, spacing, etc.), while also applying structure, such as headings (levels 1-9) and lists (bulleted and numbered). Word comes with lots of built-in styles, which are preformatted in appearance yet fully customizable. You can also add new styles of your own. It’s important to realize that the appearance of a style can be modified without changing its structural meaning. For example, the style “Heading 2” can be modified to appear in any size, font, and color without altering its meaning as a second-level page heading.

In a long, complex document, Styles help you maintain consistent visual and structural formatting: change the characteristics of the Style and everything to which that style has been applied will instantly be updated. This is a huge time-saver, especially in long, complex documents. But the structural aspect of Styles has additional benefits. For example, once you have identified headings in a document, Word’s Navigation pane will display a hierarchical outline that lets you jump from heading to heading. Word can also use the headings to create a table of contents, complete with page numbers that update dynamically as you edit the document.

Use the Styles Toolbar

Click on the section title, and select the heading level using the Styles toolbar on the Home Ribbon.

Headings toolbar on the Home Ribbon

You can quickly change the visual appearance of headings across an entire document to match your formatting preferences.

  • Set the font, color, spacing, etc., to what you would like Heading 1 to be.
  • Highlight the correctly formatted text.
  • Right-click on Heading 1 in the Ribbon, and click Update Heading 1 to Match Selection.

Now each Heading 1 will use your preferred formatting. You should see that all Heading 1 text has changed throughout your document. (You can also click Modify for more formatting options.)

Word update heading context menu

Check the Table of Contents
  • To see the Table of Contents that is generated by the headings, click on the View Ribbon, then check the Navigation Pane checkbox.
  • The document outline appears on the left side of the document in the Navigation Pane.
  • Click on any of the headings in the Navigation Pane to go to that section.
  • You can also drag headings in the navigation pane to quickly re-order content.

View Ribbon with navigation pane checkbox checked

Use the Format drop-down menu to select heading levels within the text editor. In Canvas, Heading 2 is the highest level you can choose.

Also use the bullet and numbering options available from the formatting toolbar instead of manually typing lists.

Headings drop-down menu in Canvas text editor

Although there are differences between web content editors, many have a similar dropdown menu for designating headings. The screenshot shows the text editor in WordPress.

Headings menu in WordPress

Tags are how Adobe designates document structure in a PDF. They indicate reading order as well as headings and alternative text for images. Tags must be added to a scanned PDF.

To add tags in Acrobat DC, open the Accessibility Toolbar, and click on Autotag Document.

Acrobat DC Autotag Tool

To add tags in Acrobat XI, open the Accessibility Toolbar, and click Add Tags to Document.

Add tags menu in XI

To check the accuracy of autotags, switch to the Order Panel to see if the document has been tagged correctly. The numbers in the panel correspond to the numbers highlighted on the page.

Acrobat Tag Viewer

In a few more advanced cases, you may want to edit tags manually. This is possible using the Reading Order Panel.

Under Show page content groups, select Structure Types.

Show page content groups, structure types, in touch up reading order window

Select the content that you want to tag using the mouse.

Click on the appropriate structure type in the Touch Up Reading Order window. For example, select a section heading, then click on Heading 1 to tag it.

Adding manual tags using Touch Up Reading Order