Using Emoji Could Be Excluding People From Your Conversation

August 27, 2021

Emojis play an important role in modern communication, but they’re not accessible for all users. People with limited vision or neurocognitive conditions may not be able to perceive emojis, particularly when the icons are misused or overused.

Whether you’re sending private texts, crafting social media posts, or communicating with your team at work, you can make your messages more accessible by using emojis thoughtfully — and by avoiding some of the common mistakes that cause confusion.

Screen readers may not interpret emojis as intended

Many people use screen readers to browse the internet. Screen readers convert text to audio or braille output. When presented with an image, the screen reader will search for the image’s alternative text (or alt text). 

The good news: Emojis have built-in alternative text, which is usually simple language like “money-mouth face" or “woman with curly hair.” However, screen reader users will hear the full description of each emoji, and content with misused emojis can be frustrating and confusing for people who use screen readers. 

For example, a major pizza chain recently tweeted: “Pineapple on pizza? yes yes yes backhand index pointing down backhand index pointing down backhand index pointing down.” The tweet isn’t extremely long and only uses three emojis, but it sends a strange message to people using assistive technologies.

And some emojis have alternative text that may not reflect the intent of the writer. On some platforms, the “man frowning" emoji simply looks like a man — but if a corporation tweeted “Everyone loves our products, man frowning, woman frowning,” a blind user wouldn’t receive the intended message.

Even when emojis are used properly, they take time to read. Putting a dozen emojis throughout your message might appear trendy, but it forces people with vision-related disabilities to listen to long, confusing audio descriptions.  

Use emojis, but use them sparingly

The obvious solution is to avoid using emojis entirely, but there’s a problem with that approach: People love emojis. In one survey conducted by software developer Adobe, 90% of respondents said that emojis help them express themselves more effectively, and 88% said that they’re more likely to feel empathy towards someone if they use an emoji. More than 1 in 5 tweets now contain emojis, and the icons aren’t going away anytime soon.

Many people with disabilities enjoy emojis, too — as long as the emojis are used properly. Some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Use a maximum of three emojis per message.
  • Don’t use emojis to replace words.
  • Avoid repeating emojis over and over. Look for other ways to emphasize your message.
  • Never place emojis in the middle of a sentence.
  • Be aware of emoji alternative text. Make sure it fits your message.
  • Try to place all emojis at the end of your message or post. Some people may stop reading as soon as they start hearing emojis, so keep that in mind.

Finally, don’t use emoticons in place of emojis. Emoticons are punctuation marks used to depict a facial expression. They don’t have associated alternative text, so some screen readers may have trouble deciphering them.  

Using emojis more effectively can expand your audience

Emoji usage has increased steadily over the past decade, and content creators have looked for new ways to utilize the icons to write more engaging messages. Unfortunately, those efforts can leave out a sizable portion of the internet population.

As we’ve discussed in other pieces, accessibility isn’t just for the blind, and overusing emojis can greatly limit your reach. 61 million adults in the United States have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emojis create clear accessibility issues for people with blindness and low vision, but the icons can also affect other people in your audience.

People with neurocognitive disorders or conditions like dyslexia may not appreciate messages that swap out real words for emojis, and people who don’t live with disabilities might not be able to understand the point you’re trying to get across. Put simply, emojis aren’t always the best tool for the job. 

Brands lose billions of dollars each year by not being digitally accessible, and in many cases, an accessible approach simply requires minor changes — such as keeping your emojis to a minimum. By thinking of your messages from your audience’s perspective, you can take a more thoughtful (and effective) approach. 

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