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Choose your alt text before choosing the image


September 10, 2013 - Posted in blog Posted by:

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Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Having recently returned from UXCambridge one simple throwaway comment in an accessibility talk really got me thinking.

Whitney Quesenbery was giving a talk on assistive technologies. Towards the end, while she was covering off some basic requirements for displaying images in an accessible way (how the alt text for images should describe the image and how it relates to the context in which it is presented) she made a more-or-less throwaway comment:

Choose your alt text before choosing the image

Well, now that just makes so much sense. Like the best advice it fits into the ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ category, but also encourages you to rethink how you’ve been doing things.

Anyone working in the web environment will already know that you should only include images that are relevant and that all images need to have sensible alt text. This isn’t new information. But thinking of the alternative content the other way around was a new one for me, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t been thinking like that up until now.

What makes that such great advice is that it’s not just accessibility good-practice but general content good practice.

Why? Because it forces you to actually think of the content and not the decoration.

If you want to display an image in a post, then why do you want to include an image? What are you trying to say? Why is an image important? It’s pretty simple really; if you can’t decide what you want the image to be saying then just don’t use one.

Like most accessibility practices, making something accessible generally results in making it usable at the same time. Deciding what the alt text is going to be before choosing an image to match that description is just another demonstration of this.

Content should come first – and that includes the content descriptions – alt text is content for people using certain assistive technologies.

If anyone sees a specification come off my desk that includes image placeholders with the word ‘image’ against it then you have my permission to throw something at me.

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