frowning face with open mouth emoji and text

Are emoji bad for accessibility?

Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD 2023) was widely acknowledged on social media with lots of interesting and informative posts, at least in my media bubble. Apparently, some individuals or organisations missed the point somewhat and posted inaccessible GAAD posts… oops! This prompted Thomas O’Shaughnessy from University of Limerick to share their social media Guidelines as their GAAD post. Accompanying the guidelines which are linked above and certainly worth a read, was the nice infographic below.

Social Media Accessibility: Use Plain Language; Use Camel Case Hashtags; Consider Hashtag Placement; Use Alt Text; Add Captions; Use Link Shorteners; Reduce Emoji Usage; Keep default Twitter handle font

I’m familiar with the area of digital accessibility as I’m quite sure are most of the readers of this blog. What caught my eye here, and prompted this post, was the “Reduce Emoji Usage” guideline.

Emoji are accessible to screen readers and can be very useful in conveying additional meaning to text. So why the guideline to reduce their use? I decided to investigate.

Some background: Emoji first became available on a few Japanese phones in the late 1990s. They were an evolution of the Emoticon whose initial development is attributed to Scott Fahlman. Emoticons were in use from the early 1980s on message boards, then later SMS. The classic Emoticon is the smiley face made with a colon hyphen and closed bracket or parenthesis if you prefer 🙂 but there are many more. Then in the early 1990s Microsoft released Wingdings which in many ways was the other ancestor of the Emoji.

Emoji were inevitable and grew out of a need to convey additional meaning within the confines of a short quick message typed on a T9 keyboard. They became popular quickly because they were undeniably useful. So, what’s the problem?

The primary accessibility concern is regarding people with vision difficulties. Firstly, emoji are small, often with only subtle detail to distinguish them. Even under screen magnification people with low vision will often have difficulty telling one from another. For this reason, it is advised that you never use an emoji as a replacement for a word and you never rely solely on an emoji to convey important meaning.

People with vision difficulties who use screen readers face a different set of problems when encountering emoji, almost the inverse of those who use magnification in fact. Every emoji has a specific meaning which is provided in its associated alternative text. Screen readers will read out this alternative text which can be as long as six or seven words. This emoji description will be read out along with the accompanying text and the result can often seem quite random and cause confusion. Here is the full Unicode list of emoji and their alternative text, there are almost 2000 and while most meanings are obvious, some are less so. I’m sure you can imagine that having to listen to something like “beaming face with smiling eyes beaming face with smiling eyes beaming face with smiling eyes” before even getting to the message would be quite annoying. For this reason, it is advised to keep emoji to the end of a message and as UL suggest, limit them to one or two.

Another aspect that should be considered is context. When writing alternative text for images or graphics, context is very important. The alt text you will use for the same photo could be completely different depending on where it is being used. While emoji are a lot less information rich than most photographs or illustrations, because their alt text is always the same regardless of context, care should be taken with their use.

Finally, emoji having different meaning depending on context is where we start to cross over into cognitive accessibility or even into cultural awareness. Certain emoji have evolved to have a meaning that is completely unrelated to what was originally intended. Some of these are well known, others may be restricted to a particular subculture or even a group of friends. Don’t assume someone is aware of an alternat meaning, it could cause confusion or even embarrassment [flushed face] [face with peeking eye].

5 tips on accessible emoji use:

  1. Don’t use emoji to replace a word.
  2. Don’t rely on emoji to convey important information, meaning or emotion.
  3. Avoid using multiple emoji together. Never repeat emoji.
  4. Keep emoji to the end of the message where possible.
  5. Only use emoji whose meaning is clear. Keep to the common emoji.

For more on this subject:

Accessible content design for emojis • UX Content Collective

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