Digital accessibility aims to provide every user with an equivalent experience. That certainly extends to people with hearing and vision disabilities, who may use screen readers and other assistive technology (AT) to browse your website.
One of the most effective ways to accommodate these users is to provide them with options. If your website has content that is only perceivable to users with certain sensory abilities (such as images, audio, and video), you have an obligation to provide accessible alternatives. That generally means describing the content with text.
For instance, if your website has images, you need accurate alternative text (also called alt text) for those images. If you publish podcasts, you’ll need to publish accurate transcripts. Providing these text-based alternatives ensures that your content is perceivable for everyone.
But occasionally, well-meaning content creators can go overboard. Writing too much text can harm accessibility by overloading the user with unnecessary information. Here’s why.
Too much information can overwhelm your audience
To understand the problem, let’s take a look at a quick example. A website contains a photograph of an apple. The alt text for the image reads:
Red apple on white background with drops of water running down the side of the apple, indicating that it’s fresh and ready to be consumed.
Screen reader software will read this entire description to the user. The alt text has an enormous amount of information — and the extra info doesn’t help the user understand the purpose of the image.
Better alt text might read “red apple on white background,” or perhaps just “red apple.” The user will understand the context of the image on the page from a basic, no-frills description.
Likewise, if you’re writing a transcript of an audio podcast, a long description of the sound effects might be distracting for readers. While your transcript should contain all of the spoken dialogue, sound effects and musical cues probably don’t need detailed descriptions — you’ll just need to provide your audience with the same information they could get from listening to the episode.
When an element is purely decorative, don’t waste time describing it
Some content simply doesn’t need a text alternative. Many web elements are decorative — they improve the experience for visual-first users, but they don’t add any information to the content of the page.
- Borders, spacers, and corners.
- A photo with a detailed caption that explains the content of the image.
- An image of a shopping cart appears next to visible text that reads, “shopping cart.”
In these cases, a text alternative would be redundant. People who use assistive tech can understand the purpose of the image without a separate text alternative. Including alt text for these images wouldn’t improve the content, but it might frustrate your audience by forcing them to listen to unnecessary descriptions.
Likewise, if your website contains elements that are purely decorative, duplicated, or offscreen, hiding that content from assistive technology users may provide them with a better experience. Of course, you’ll need to exercise caution when hiding elements — but in certain situations, it’s the right choice.
Think about the user when creating your content
When you’re building an accessible website, you need to establish clear objectives. As we’ve discussed in other articles, most websites should aim for Level AA conformance with the latest official version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
However, your ultimate goal is to improve experiences for real-life users — not to reach a certain level of technical conformance. To that end, you should think about your audience when making design decisions, particularly if you’re adding content that isn’t perceivable for every individual.
WCAG trusts creators to use their judgment, particularly when deciding whether elements are decorative and whether text alternatives are appropriate for the content. Of course, if you don’t use assistive technology regularly, you might not have difficulty making those decisions. An accessibility-first approach can help you stay mindful of your users.
By working with an experienced accessibility partner, you can build a better approach. If you have questions about your content — or you want to develop your perspective of your users' experiences — the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert.