Christian Heilmann

Who needs alternative text?

Monday, July 11th, 2005 at 1:35 pm

I just went through some sites for an accessibility audit and keep bumping into the same issue: Alternative text for the sake of alternative text. If I surf some pages with a text browser, IBM Homepage Reader or Jaws and it takes me 10 minutes more to find my way around, I start wondering where the common sense was when the site was created or who was the main target for these alternative texts. Take this gem taken from a noscript block:

We use javascript to write a “breadcrumb” here. If you want to view it you need to enable scripting in your browser. If this is not an option for you, you can navigate easily and in an equivalent way, by modifying the address of the page that you are viewing. For example: if the address shown is http://www.example.com/section1/a_and_b/c_and_d.html – you can change this to http://www.example.com/section1/a_and_b.html to navigate to the previous page in the hierachy or to http://www.example.com/section1.html to navigate to the top page in the hierachy.

They forgot to mention that I can also go to their competitors site, who didn’t bother using JavaScript to generate breadcrumbs, and offers me three easily understandable links.

Another issue is that a lot of developers rely on title attributes to deliver crucial information, like “PDF Document” or “opens in new window”, and not all who use assistive technology do have title reading enabled. Some even get rid of it by default, and who could blame them when you get titles like “Click to skip to content (skips navigation)” for a “Skip to content” link and a “click to visit the xyz page” for links stating “xyz”?

Generally, there are some sins I try to avoid:

  • Alternative text that is dependent on the image/effect
  • Alternative text that is overly elaborate – think of explaining something over the phone, not read out a manual
  • Needless repetition of text. A link is a link, no need to repeat that (My favourite was “link to www.example.com – click to activate – opens in new window” as a title).

The sites with the best usability are the ones that helped us reach our visit goal without realising how the site helped us. As soon as you need elaborate explanations it is a sign that you either broke a convention or your interaction steps to reach the goal are simply too complex.

Share on Twitter