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Providing clear, unambiguous labels and instructions for web content

What does WCAG 3.3.2 say about instructions and labels? 

Many websites require users to enter information, whether that's just their name and email address for a basic sign-up to a newsletter, or more complex information such as mailing address and payment details for an e-commerce transaction. 

Particularly for data such as dates and phone numbers, where there are multiple formatting conventions, correctly entering information can be challenging for users who have cognitive, language or learning impairments. 

The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) address this potential accessibility barrier in guideline 3.3.2. This guideline calls for the inclusion of instructions or labels to identify controls so that users can understand what input data is expected. Note that this success criterion is not concerned with the correct marking-up or associating of labels with controls (covered by 1.3.1) or about the perceived clarity of the instructions (covered by 2.4.6) — it simply requires the instructions or labels to be included.

Why are instructions and labels important? 

All web users know the annoyance of reaching the end of a long form, hitting submit, and then having to laboriously backtrack to fix errors or complete missing information. And this can be even more frustrating for people with disabilities.  

When a website provides clear and unambiguous instructions about what information it expects you to input, and in what format, the experience is faster and simpler for all. For users with disabilities, this can make the difference between a usable and an unusable website. 

By making sure you provide sufficient information to guide users in entering the right information in the right places, you can help the broadest possible range of visitors — regardless of their physical or mental abilities — to navigate your website and accomplish tasks without undue confusion. Conforming with this WCAG guideline can also reduce your risk of a lawsuit under accessibility legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

What can I do to fix the issue? 

Quite simply, you need to ensure that any user-completable form fields or controls on your website have instructions or labels that explain what input data is expected. The W3C advises also that you specify data formats where appropriate — for example, dates — and that you consider hiding verbose instructions unless the control or field in question currently has focus.  

As noted above, this WCAG success criterion isn't about the correct marking-up of instructions or the clarity of those instructions. It's just about making sure that they are present and provide an appropriate amount of information. The W3C reminds us that too much information can be just as unhelpful as too little; you need to provide appropriate cues and instructions without cluttering up the page. 

While you can automatically detect the lack of instructions associated with form fields or controls, you need human input and expertise to create appropriate instructions and labels. Achieving this at scale across your entire site is potentially a major challenge. 

AudioEye combines automated scanning and remediation technology with human-led testing and custom remediation, providing a unique hybrid service that resolves accessibility issues like this on an ongoing basis. By subscribing to the AudioEye service, you get the benefit of rapid identification and remediation of key accessibility issues. You also gain access to a team of human experts who can support your web designers in adopting universal design practices for the longer term. 

Don’t delay — subscribe today and solve your digital accessibility issues with AudioEye. 

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