Creating meaningful alternative text

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Introduction to Alternative Text

Alternative Text is simply providing an image with a text alternative so that the information the image conveys can be consumed by a wider range of people, this is especially important for blind and some low-vision users, who rely on alternative text to be read out by their screen reader and/or refreshable Braille display, to understand images and their purpose.

There are several ways of writing alternative text and sometimes the methods for adding alternative text will differ greatly from websites, to documents, to social media. We're not going to focus on the How to add alt text to [Specific application or website] here, that will be addressed in guides for each of those particular platforms. We're primarily focusing on how to write good alternative text, and considering some best practices along the way.

Typically, across the web and in office applications, we have a nifty way to add alternative text, called Alt Text. In HTML (the code for creating website structure), we'd add this as an attribute, like so <img src="path.jpg" alt="Some useful text description of our image">, in office type applications, we'd add this information with an option, but the principle is fundamentally the same.

When a screen reader encounters an image which has Alt Text it will either say "Image" or "Graphic" (depending on which screen reader it is) and then proceed to read out the text in the Alt Text attribute, so as authors we have a duty to make that Alt Text meaningful.

Types of images

We will use the term image to refer to pictures, icons, screenshots and complex images of any type. We can categorise images, for the purpose of adding Alt Text into 5 distinct types.

Decorative images

A decorative image is typically an image that serves absolutely no purpose other than to make a page or document look pretty, fill some space, break up large chunk of text or any other reason where it adds no information to the page content and is not related to it in any way. Some marketing images fall into this category, we may encounter images such as "woman on a phone", "man with a tablet", "woman showing group of employees some graphs on a laptop". If these images are stock type images, you got them from some online source, then in most instances, these should be decorative.

In HTML we would provide that image with a so-called null alt attribute, this means the alt attribute is present (it must be present) but its value is an empty string, like so <img src="path.jpg" alt="">, In office-type applications there is often an option to mark as decorative, this has the same functionality as the null Alt attribute in HTML. A correctly marked up decorative image means that a screen reader ignores it, it's as if it isn't there at all (That's OK, if it is truly decorative).

Functional images

A functional image is an image that can be clicked and it either does something or goes somewhere. Examples of that being, a bin icon in your email, which moves an email or emails to the trash bin, an app icon on your phone, for settings, social media or pretty much everything else or a logo on a website that when clicked usually takes a user to the homepage.

The test for this is if I can interact with it in some way and it does something in after I do, then it's interactive and therefore functional.

For functional images we typically want to write the purpose of the interaction as opposed to describing the actual image, as an example "A sharp looking pencil, at a 45 degrees angle, seemingly writing on paper" Isn't all that helpful, when the purpose of the button is simply to edit something, so we would provide alternative text of "Edit", as that adequately describes the purpose of the control.

Informative images

An informative image is any image that either adds or supports the information on a page, typically we would describe these images succinctly and more importantly, we would consider their purpose before writing the description.

Examples of informative images could be:

Typically we'd want to describe the intent of the image, as opposed to explaining insignificant details, as an example "Nadia receiving her award for Engineering Excellence, presented by the Vice Chancellor and Head of the school of Engineering", is much better than "Nadia, who is wearing black shiny shoes, with silver decorative features and no laces, blue ankle length trousers and a white blouse, is receiving her award from Dr Smith, who is wearing..." you get the idea, those elements of the image are inconsequential, the important information is Nadia is receiving her award and who the people that presented that award are. The subject of the page would likely be Nadia's achievements, the image just validates that content.

Complex images

There are times where images may be extremely complex, they could be data visualisations, blueprints, diagrams, artists impressions, architectural drawings many other images. If we had a page about the Mona Lisa, on a school of art page, we'd want to describe the finer details of that image in text, just like we would for all the aforementioned images, but in this instance, we wouldn't really want to do it in Alt Text, we'd ideally be describing the image in visible text, that everybody can access.

Some complex images can immediately be understood by people who are are familiar with the subject. Let's imagine we have hired an architect to redesign the main foyer of a campus, another architect could look at those detailed drawings and make some noises of approval, such as "hmmm", or "ahhhh" and fully understand the detailed aspects of what is proposed, but, if like me, you can appreciate a good artist's impression, but have absolutely no idea of how to interpret the finer details or technical considerations, we'd all benefit from this being explained in the surrounding text. Whilst Alt Text used to have limits, it doesn't anymore, but that doesn't mean we should stuff it with 20,000 words, as that experience isn't the best for screen reader users, but if we adequately describe that image on the page and then provide the image with a nice succinct Alt Text, such as "Architect's proposal for the main foyer, image taken from the current front door", should a user wish to download that image, perhaps to send to a friend or colleague, they can do so and it has a nice and short description and the more detailed description is available for everybody.

This kind of logic also applies to images of maps or charts and such, if we have no choice but to put images of charts on a page, those charts would need to be described accurately on the page itself, adding a complex chart with no supporting text would pretty much confuse all of us.

Emotion-rich images

This is perhaps where we can get into a little nuance, around images, as not every screen reader user may want to listen to these, but some will, everybody is different.

An emotion-rich image is typically something that is placed on a page to illicit a positive or negative emotional response within users that encounter it. Some examples could be:

Later we'll link to the Alt Decision Tree, but Emotion-rich images don't feature in that, this is something I stumbled across reading a blog of somebody in the Accessibility industry who is hugely respected. Léonie is a screen reader user and also amongst many other notable things sits on the one of the W3C's working groups. I refer and link to this article often, as it helps us understand the perspective of a screen reader user, from somebody who relies on a screen reader, but is also involved in creating the standards for accessible websites and content.

Imagine we had 50 screen reader users and we asked them if they would prefer these images, that would otherwise be marked as decorative to be considered emotion-rich and supplied with Alt Text. It's not going to be a case of all 50 people said the same thing, everybody is unique and everybody has their own preferences. Now, if we marked these funny, heartwarming, smile-inducing or heart-string pulling images as decorative, what we are doing is making a decision, that decision is: No screen reader user can access this image, ever. I'm not a screen reader user, but I do believe the core principles of accessibility include both choice and alternatives. If we describe an image placed on a page to evoke some emotional response, if a user encounters it and thinks "Not interesting", they can simply move away and listen to other parts of the content they are interested in, but if we mark it as decorative, then those that would have wanted to hear about it, simply cannot, as it doesn't exist to them.

Definitely don't abuse this and explain those marketing images that are "Man in a suit, shaking the hand of a lady in a suit" because, in that instance, it's likely nobody cares whether they are there or not, other than the person who decided to put them there.

It's a judgement call

There is no exact science about alternative text, there is often an element of making a judgement call, but by learning about others' lived experiences and considering how are choices can impact users, we can at least make informed judgements and hopefully we will get it right at least most of the time.

The W3C provide a useful tool, which can assist in making those decisions called the Alt Decision Tree this doesn't cover Emotion-rich images, but does cover most other types and can be helpful in determining when to add alternative text or even how.

Alt text quick tips

Stellar Alt Text (Literally)

You may have stumbled across the images that were released by NASA when the James Webb telescope took photos of the universe when it was in its early stages, I personally saw them on social media. Space is really interesting, but astrophysicist I am not, so I just saw a relatively cool picture of the Universe and didn't know much about more about what I was actually looking at, but, in the ahem, Good ole' days, when Twitter had an accessibility team, one of the things they created was the little Alt badge, which only displays when an image has Alt text. So I clicked the Alt badge for the image and was pleasantly surprised by what it contained.

I found the Alt text to be great, I benefitted personally from reading it, as it explained the image much better than my mind interpreted it. It is arguably a complex image, so the Alt text should have been either linked to or threaded, due to character limits, but the Alt Text was really great, in my opinion. The original tweet is embedded below, if you don't want to click through to Twitter, the Alt Text follows the embed.

The original tweet

The Alt Text from the tweet

"The background of space is black. Thousands of galaxies appear all across the view. Their shapes and colors vary. Some are various shades of orange, others are white. Most stars appear blue, and are sometimes as large as more distant galaxies that appear next to them. A very bright star is just above and left of center. It has eight bright blue, long diffraction spikes. Between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock in its spikes are several very bright galaxies. A group of three are in the middle, and two are closer to 4 o’clock. These galaxies are part of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, and they are warping the appearances of galaxies seen around them. Long orange arcs appear at left and right toward the center."

Wrapping up

Hopefully this guide has helped you to understand a bit more of the nuance of Alt Text. It can be hard and there is an element of author discretion, but ultimately the summary is:

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