E-Z Guide for Writing Alt Text:
Part 1 — Basic Guidelines

There’s no one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter method for writing Alt Text. Writing Alt Text is both an art and craft that depends on the subject matter and why the graphic is in the publication.

This multi-part tutorial updates the industry's best practices for Alt Text.

Prompted by revised accessibility standards, new AT (assistive technologies), and better awareness of the needs of a broader base of users, we take a new look at how we provide this critical information to everyone.

Basic Guidelines for Alt Text

Take a minute and think about each graphic. Why is it in the document? What's its purpose? This helps you choose the best technique to convey its message.

  1. Be concise. Eliminate unnecessary words.

  2. But, don’t leave out the essentials. Craft the right balance.

  3. Neither the WCAG, EPUB, nor PDF/UA accessibility standards specify a length for Alt Text. However, there’s a practical limit of how much Alt Text some assistive technologies (AT) can provide the user. Some ATs clip the Alt Text after 200–300 characters — about the length of a long Tweet. There’s also a limit to how much detail human users can “process.”

  4. When necessary, use other methods to convey extensive details found in complex and STEM graphics. For complex data charts, provide an accessible, matching data table with the graphic. It could appear after the graphic, in an appendix at the end of a document, or on a webpage. Or make available the original spreadsheet from which the data chart was created.

  5. For complex graphics, put as much information about the graphic in the body text before the graphic, in prefatory text (sometimes tagged as <Caption>, or in the graphic's caption. These options make the text available to all users, not just screen readers, and minimize the limitations of Alt Text.

  6. Speak the Alt Text aloud and fine tune it so that is sounds fluid and natural to your ears, not clipped or stilted. It's useful to test it with a screen reader, as well know how other AT will process it.

  7. Most screen readers announce that it’s an “image” or graphic and many users assume it's a photo. But that might not be accurate for some graphics, such as logos, technical illustrations, maps, and charts. If you think that “image” doesn't describe the information well enough, then add a term that defines it better for AT users. But keep it short. Write “Caricature of President Obama” rather than “This is a caricature drawing of President Barack Obama.”

  8. Put punctuation at the end of the Alt Text to improve screen reader voicing. A simple period does the trick and prevents the Alt Text from running directly into the body text that follows.

  9. Alt Text doesn't have any semantic tags like headings, lists, and hyperlinks. Treat it like it's bare, unformatted text where the text itself must carry all the necessary information to understand it.

  10. Don’t repeat the graphic’s caption in the Alt Text. That violates the accessibility guidelines about repetitive or redundant information.

  11. Captions and Alt Text are not the same and have different purposes. Captions are editorial: wax poetic for as long as you'd like in the caption. Draw conclusions. And remember, because it's part of the file's live content, it's available to all users. On the other hand, Alt Text is a literal description of the important visual aspects of the graphic that is only heard by those using some screen readers and text-to-speech AT. For example, sighted users rarely see or hear Alt Text or know that it's there.

  12. Don’t bury details in Alt Text that aren’t available to everyone else who reads the content. Captions, like body text, are read by all users, whether or not they use AT. No one is left out. On the other hand, Alt Text is read only by those using text-to-speech AT, such as screen readers.

  13. Don't put hyperlinks or other action-items in Alt Text because they are not clickable or functional. AT users have limited screen reader controls when hearing Alt Text.

  14. Whoever decides which graphics are inserted in the article or webpage is also responsible for writing their Alt Text. Author’s should not push this task down the food chain to the designers or production folks.

  15. Write for a broad audience because Alt Text is used not just by those who are blind. Users with partial vision, failing vision, and reading disorders also depend on Alt Text (if it's available in their AT) to clarify the details of what they can partially see or have difficulty understanding.

Up Next
Part 2 — Where to Start

References for the series

ISO standard for Alt Text

Download a free copy of this ISO standard from the International Telecommunication Union, www.itu.int/rec/T-REC-T.701.11

WCAG 2.1 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)

PDF/UA-1 (PDF Universal Access standards)

  • Figures:
    Figure tags shall include an alternative representation or replacement text that represents the contents marked with the Figure tag as noted in ISO 32000-1:2008, 14.7.2, Table 323.
    NOTE 1 See also WCAG 2.0, Guideline 1.1.

  • Math:
    7.7 Mathematical expressions
    All mathematical expressions shall be enclosed within a Formula tag as detailed in ISO 32000-1:2008, and shall have an Alt attribute.

Note: this blog will be updated as standards and industry guidelines develop. Check back for updates.

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