Text descriptions and emotion rich images

This article was first posted in 2007 on the eAccess blog. Three years later and I still believe that emotion rich images are important to blind people, particularly those who once had sight (and that’s most of us). Results from the third WebAIM screen reader survey suggest I’m not alone, so I’m reposting the article here to encourage the debate to continue.

So just what is a decorative image? It seems to me that one person’s eye candy is another person’s emotional link to a website.

For some, decorative images are those horizontal rules, bullets and other forms of minor clipart we find sprinkled around the web. For others, the term
is wider ranging. It includes more content rich images such as photos and artwork.

So, you might ask, what’s the problem with this varied point of view? The answer is simple. Alt texts.

If you Google for the term “decorative image + alt texts”, you’ll come across countless sites that suggest that a decorative image be
given a null alt text. It’s possible that we can all agree that for minor forms of clipart, a null alt text will do nicely. But it gets a little
more difficult when it comes to more complex images.

I’m not talking about diagrams, blueprints or other information rich images. There’s no argument that they should always carry an alt text,
possibly even a long description. I mean the vibrant, emotion rich images that provide a website with a sense of atmosphere.

It’s sometimes argued that providing such images with descriptive alt texts provides too much “noise” for a screen reader user. If we
screen reader users stopped to listen to every alt text, every time we came across an image, then this assumption would probably be right. But I’ll
let you into a secret. We won’t.

Like sighted users, we’ll skip around the content of the page until we find something that interests us. If the first few syllables of an alt text
sound promising, we’ll pause to read. If they don’t, we’ll move on to the next element on the page. Also like sighted users, we’re
often likely to pause on something unimportant, but which captures our imagination.

A good alt text can conjure up wonderfully stimulating mental images. A friendly smile is the same in print, photo or wax crayon. Whether you listen to
an image or see it, the emotional response is the key factor, so why should we recommend that these emotion rich images should be given a null alt text
and hidden from screen reader users?

Perhaps it’s time we introduced another group of images: Emotion rich images and encouraged the practice of providing descriptive alt texts for
them. If people don’t want to listen to the alt text, they won’t. If people don’t want to pause and look at the image, they won’t.
In either case, it’s good to have the choice.

6 comments on “Text descriptions and emotion rich images”

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  1. Comment by Richard - Accessibleweb

    This raises a couple of questions for me:

    1) Is it better to say “Photo of The White House” than “The White House” because http://webaim.org/projects/screenreadersurvey/#images says that is the overwhelmingly more popular option, or does the fact the “photo of” appears for every photo make it more difficult to skim through the pictures?
    2) Is there a case for a programmatic way of distinguishing between images where description is essential, and those where it is desirable (such that screenreaders could then class them differently), or is that taking too much choice away from the end user and putting it in the hands of the content author?

  2. Comment by Léonie Watson

    Where as you don’t need to include the word “graphic” in a text description (because a screen reader will automatically convey that piece of information), I think the use case you’ve outlined might be different. For example, if someone was looking for a photo of The White House the word “photo” in the text description might be considered essential information.

    I’m not sure about a programmatic way to filter text descriptions. I’m curious to know why you think someone who can’t see an image (but can understand/enjoy a text description) should want to filter content any more than anyone else might though?

  3. Comment by Richard - Accessibleweb

    If you were looking for a particular photo then I can see why that would be important. But say for example a photo gallery page – where each picture tells part of the story of the website. In that case would the word “photo” be redundant because of context?

    Regarding a programmatic way to filter descriptions I was just thinking aloud. Would it be of benefit to be able to distinguish between images where the content is vital and those where it is not necessarily so. Not to exclude those descriptions but to be able to skim through them more efficiently. In particular I am thinking of screen reader users who may not be as proficient as you are. In some ways what I am thinking about is just another extension to how content gets marketed anyway, i.e. the importance of order and placement, emphasis etc.

  4. Comment by Kerry Webb

    Thanks for raising this issue, which I think about a lot – as my job involves advising people in out government about Web Accessibility.

    I lean towards a minimalist approach: unless an image is extremely emotion rich, I’d advise one of our Web managers to use Alt null. The problem, as I see it, is where do you draw the line? At what stage does it pass from “decorative” to “emotion rich”?

    I’ll still lean towards ALT null, but what you’ve posted shows that it’s best to take the advice of users of AT.

  5. Comment by Jeremiah Z. Rogers

    My guidance on this has changed over the years, and I agree with the author, but not for the same reasons.

    As I live and work, I increasingly find myself in situations where colleagues, customer service personnel, friends, and online content refer to imagery more than anything else. They don’t refer to the mobile banking link, they say click on the picture of the cellphone. They don’t say click contact us, they say click the telephone icon. They don’t say click on the iPod link, they say click the picture of the iPod. Screen reader users can’t do any of those things if those images aren’t appropriately attributed.

    Ultimately, I think the logic behind minimizing the noise or distractions for screen reader users browsing the web is a well-intentioned, if misguided, attempt to confuse accessibility with simple. People load up a screen reader, fire up their favorite web browser, and quickly grow discouraged by the insane amount of time the default speech settings take to read the first few headlines of that day’s New York Times. Because they’ve no knowledge of the myriad commands available to screen reader users, the virtual buffer, or techniques to chunk and jump through even poorly designed content, they find the experience overwhelming and want to make it simple and less stressful rather than equal.

    Assistive tech users don’t need a quiet, clean, streamlined web anymore than African-Americans, women, or seniors do. Assistive tech users need code which presents all of the information on the page as cleanly, well organized, and conducive to navigation as the page is without assistive technology.

    Thanks for reposting the article.

  6. Comment by Keith Parks

    Well stated.

    I’ve often thought that the notion of separating content from presentation is at times not possible. The “presentation”, when it conveys the emotional or intellectual attitude of a site, *is* part of the content.

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