They say an image conveys a thousand words. But what if you can’t see that image? Its meaning will be lost to you, and you’ll feel left out of the conversation.

Alt text is a way of making those images accessible by adding a description in words that can be read, or listened to.

As a content designer, creating inclusive and accessible content centred around the user is second nature to me. Whatever I’m designing, I always ask, “Am I leaving anyone behind?”

And this applies especially to images.

Images and icons can be great for improving content engagement and visualising the words on a page. Diagrams, charts and graphs are great for condensing lots of technical information into digestible formats and are particularly useful for people with dyslexia.

Now imagine that user is blind or partially sighted. That’s the first group that springs to mind when we talk about the problem of accessible images.

But you might also imagine they’re on a dodgy Wi-Fi connection and images aren’t loading.

Or they’re using assistive technology, such as Microsoft Immersive Reader.

How will you communicate the same information to them now that they can’t see your image?

Without accurate image alt text, you can’t.

But there are a lot of inconsistent messages about best practice when it comes to image alt text.

Conflicting messages surrounding image alt text

The most frequent argument on how to properly use alternatives for images rears its head when using decorative images. That means things like borders or patterns – things that are there only to look nice, but convey no meaning in their own right.

Content creators focused on the user are more likely to encourage the use of alt text to describe to those who can’t see the image what they’re missing, even if it’s only decorative.

Other content practices, however, advise against using alt text for purely decorative images.

This approach is most common in search engine optimisation (SEO) where alt text is only seen as valuable if it helps search engines to rank the content on the page.

At the other extreme, it can also lead to alt text stuffed with meaningless keywords, which is bad SEO practice these days, but also a nightmare for those using screen readers.

This argument is not just about SEO. The Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines also suggests that designers should use their judgement in deciding whether to leave alt text blank on decorative images.

Their argument is that a picture of a dog with the text ‘dog’ next to it would add clutter for screen reader users and be annoying to listen to: “Dog, dog”.

I would argue, however, that alt text doesn’t just exist to add context. It’s also there to give all users, whether they can see the image or not, the exact same experience. Knowing that there’s an image, but not knowing what it is, is potentially frustrating.

And as Eric Bailey argues in this article for Smashing Magazine, very few images are purely decorative. Bailey suggests that the idea of the decorative image is, in fact, a hangover from the days when blank ‘spacer’ images were routinely used to layout pages.

This is also where I’ll underline the importance of accurate alt text: it should describe the image, not in excruciating detail, but enough to add additional useful information.

So, in the example above, we might have a heading that reads “Dog” and alt text that says “A small brown dog with patches of white on its fur.” Or even, depending on the context, “An incredibly cute little dog with a goofy expression.” Whatever it takes so that people can join in.

Ethics in alt text

If you’re to accurately describe everything in an image for every user to have the same experience, it makes sense that you will need to describe people’s characteristics when an image features people.

This can include race, gender, sexuality, disabilities and age.

The language used to describe visual markers of identity can change with time, though, and some can even come to be regarded as offensive.

There’s also the risk of misrepresenting someone’s identity, culture or heritage by making assumptions.

This makes explicit image alternatives problematic without a proper process in place for drafting and approving them. And, as with anything related to diversity, equality and inclusion, that should involve people with lived experience.

Alternatively, stock images often already include some kind of description from which you can take a steer.

Or when using your own photography, you can ask the people involved how they want to be represented in the alternative text.

The key thing here is to never assume anyone’s identity, which is good practice anyway.

The case for accurate image alt text in every instance

One of the reasons for not using precise alternative text I’ve come up against most frequently is this:

“It’s difficult to maintain and it’s only a few people that will ever read it. Do we really want to change our processes for just a handful of users?”

Being user-focused, naturally I would say, “Yes!” anyway.

But in fact, more people use alt text than you might realise.

Without accurate image alt text, you’re leaving behind:

Social media awareness

Given its importance on the image heavy platform, one of the forums used most frequently to discuss alternative text best practice is social media.

Specsavers, a chain of opticians in the UK, recently used social media to make a very valid point about the improper use of image alt text.

The trigger for these was a briefly popular meme in which big brands hid the punchline to a joke in the alt text on an image.

Specsavers published its own tweet satirising this meme and demonstrated the importance of alt text by saying as its ‘punchline’:

“Alt text is a hugely important accessibility tool designed to help people navigate the internet more easily, so it shouldn't be used as a punchline... This is especially true if the Alt text doesn't describe the image, leaving blind and visually impaired people out of the joke."

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) then jumped on the publicity of the Specsavers tweet, using it to generate a national discussion of alt text which even made the BBC News homepage.

The RNIB reinforced why the original memes are inappropriate by explaining that organisations shouldn’t be excluding people at all, let alone for the sake of a joke. It also raised the point that alt text that doesn’t fully explain the picture prevents blind people from being able to join in.

Representation matters

Although creating an accessible experience for users is crucial, image alt text can do so much more than that.

Addressing media representation of marginalised groups has centred heavily on showing disabilities, people of colour and different ages, cultures and identities, particularly in advertising and in the fashion world.

UK Vogue has led the way with this in the mainstream media since it appointed Edward Enninful its Editor in Chief. Up until his recent departure, Enninful encouraged the use of a diverse range of models on the magazine’s covers as a way to change the media narrative surrounding race, gender, sexuality, disabilities, and age.

And so, if all this positive change is being achieved through images, it poses the question, ‘How do we replicate that experience for blind or partially sighted users?’ The answer is, of course, good alt text.

We can’t say we’ll show diversity in images to make people feel included and represent all groups within society if not everyone can get the same information from that image.

That is, in itself, an act of exclusion.

I encourage the use of accurate alt text because it is accessible, inclusive, and equitable.

It also serves to address assumptions too. Consider an image of someone who might present as if they have a particular cultural background or heritage, or has a gender neutral name and is constantly having to correct people. Image alt text can act like a footnote, helping to clarify for others the correct way to identify them.

If you’d like to read more on why representation matters in alt text this article by Tolu Adegbite explains why it’s important to her as a Black woman.

Make adding alt text a good habit

I believe that anyone putting out content has a role to play in making that content as inclusive and accessible as possible.

That could be a social media post with a carousel, a research paper with diagrams, an email, or an instant message with a GIF.

Always consider your user and think about whether accurate alt text would improve their experience.

And if you’re not sure who your user is, or there’s a chance a wider audience could view it, err on the side of caution and add a full description.

Written by Naomi Busuttil - Content Design Consultant, Leeds