Sensory characteristics – accessibility for web writers

Don’t write instructions that rely on things that can only be seen (shape, size, screen location, orientation) or heard. If you do, some of your users won’t be able to follow your instructions.

Do you ever write instructions like these? ‘Choose a new candidate from the green box, or show your support for an existing member listed in the red box.’ ‘Extra training materials are in the links on the right.’ ‘Click on the icon to hear how to pronounce the word.’

Benefits of not relying on sensory characteristics

If you write like this, some people will struggle to use your content. For instance:

  • colour-blind users may not be able to differentiate between ‘green’ and ‘red’ boxes
  • blind users can’t identify the ‘right’ side of the page, a coloured box, or an icon
  • people who are deaf or hard of hearing won’t be able to hear the correct pronunciation.

Being careful not to rely on sensory characteristics will also help:

  • people who print your information in black and white
  • mobile users who see a different layout (if you’re using a responsive design)
  • anyone using a computer without speakers or a sound card or working in a noisy environment.

Supplement instructions with text

You can still refer to sensory characteristics of content—it can help people with reading difficulties or cognitive impairments if you do. But you must supplement them with text labels.

For example:

  • Choose from the green ‘New candidates’ or the red ‘Existing members’ box. The boxes have the relevant text labels supplementing the colour.
  • Extra training materials are linked under ‘Advanced training topics’ on the right.
  • A pronunciation guide is provided in text, supplementing the audio guide.

‘Above’ and ‘below’ are OK

In English, ‘above’ is commonly used to refer to the content before this point, and ‘below’ means the content following. These are not likely to cause problems for anyone with a disability, as long as the reading order of the content is appropriate. (‘Reading order’ is the order that a screen reader reads through content. It is usually based on the order of the HTML source code in your page.)


Next article in this series