Email accessibility is about making sure all your email recipients can access your message. This includes those with disabilities (like blindness) or those who use assistive technologies (like screen readers).
According to the National Federation of the Blind, an estimated 1.3 million people are blind with 75,000 more people becoming blind or visually impaired each year in the U.S. — but they still rely on their phones and mobile devices.
Designers and marketers are becoming more aware that email accessibility is important in order to communicate with all valued audience members. To understand the topic more, in 2017 we chatted with thought leader John Thies, who at that time was the CEO and co-founder of Email on Acid, a dedicated advocate for email accessibility (since then Email On Acid was acquired by Pathwire, and John retired from the company).
Read on to learn about common email accessibility mistakes and how to avoid them!
Not everyone uses their phones in the same way
When John Thies first heard about email accessibility, he was curious. So he took out his iPhone and started adjusting its accessibility functions. (Most mobile devices have accessibility features to aid with vision, hearing, and physical impairments).
Doing this changed everything. After just a few clicks, Thies was stunned at how different it was to interact with his phone. “That was an impactful moment,” he recalls.
In realizing how different it was to use his phone with changed accessibility settings, Thies quickly understood the impact on email. A natural problem-solver, he set out to see what he could do to help.
Email accessibility is a matter of awareness
As with anything else, the first step toward positive change is awareness. “You don’t know who’s opening your email and what can be impacting them from receiving the whole message,” Thies explains.
To illustrate his point, here’s how emails might be viewed differently with various visual impairments, which include:
- Low acuity
- Ghosting (Double vision)
- Color blindness
Images courtesy of John Thies.
Ghosting (Double vision)
When Thies shows email pros images like these, he says most react in a similar fashion: “Holy crap, I had no idea.” Many of us take for granted that an email we design will be viewed exactly as we view it. But that’s not always the case. And there are other types of impairments, too. Just think how different it’d be to use your phone with only your “weaker” hand (say you broke the thumb on your dominant hand and had it in a cast for two months). Scrolling, tapping, navigating—everything would be different.
How to design with accessibility in mind
The good news: making email more accessible is not hard. We asked Thies about the most common email design missteps people make, and each one can be easily addressed. The top three email mistakes are:
- Poor contrast ratio. Contrast is all about how bright an image, text, or design element appears against other elements beneath or alongside it. For colorblind and visually impaired readers, this is very important. Poor contrast can make text illegible or an image indecipherable. There’s no standard contrast ratio, but Thies points out that Web Accessibility Guidelines suggest 4.5 to 1. Designers can test contrast ratios using tools like WebAIM.
- Links that aren’t underlined. “Make sure there’s a visual indication the text is a link,” Thies says. This means an underline. Why? Say your linked text is blue and not underlined. Not everyone perceives the color blue the same way. Some readers might not see blue text any differently than other text, so they won’t see anything linked at all. Underline linked text—no matter the color you use—and all readers will see it.
- Missing language attribute. This is a simple line of code that’s often overlooked. Thies recommends setting your HTML language attribute in the head of the email, i.e., lang=”en”. It ensures screen readers pronounce words correctly so that your email is comprehensible. Pretty important!
“There’s no negative impact to doing any of this,” Thies points out. In fact, many of the accessibility design tips he offers are in line with the same design simplicity principles we often talk about here on Email Design Workshop.
“The more complex design, the more thought you have to put into making it accessible,” says Thies. That’s all the more reason to keep it simple! Here are more tips from Thies.
More email accessibility design tips:
- Keep fonts legible. Thies suggests a minimum font size of 14px for regular fonts and 16px for light ones.
- Avoid light text. Lighter colors (especially against a light background) are harder to detect.
- Left-align text. It’s easier to read than center-adjusted.
- Maintain a logical reading structure. Use headers and don’t skip heading levels (e.g., H1, H2, H3).
- Stick to semantic layouts (i.e., modular design). Your content should unfold in an expected order. Think main header, section header, body text, then footer.
- Don’t forget ALT text. Descriptive, accurate ALT text means screen readers can describe images.
- Include captions in videos!
Accessibility is key to the future of email
John Thies’s hope is to see every email become accessible in the next few years. This is our hope, too: there are many features in BEE’s email builder that help create accessible emails, both behind the scenes (the HTML code produced by the email editor) and in the visual builder’s user interface.
To help email designers move toward increased accessibility, Thies partnered with the Email Experience Council to develop email accessibility standards. These best practices should be released in the next few months, and we’ll post them here as soon they’re available. In the meantime, read more about email accessibility on the Email on Acid blog and follow John Thies on Twitter @johnethies.
A huge thank you to Thies for helping all of us at EDW (and beyond) to become better email designers. We look forward to learning more about email as it keeps evolving into better, bolder, and more accessible design!
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