What the Wine Industry Can Teach Us About Digital Accessibility
Stuck on writing descriptive alt text? Take a cue from the wine industry, which sets the standard for evocative, accessible product descriptions.
If you’ve ever browsed the wine aisle at a grocery store, you know that winemakers can get pretty detailed describing the flavors of wine.
Some wines are jammy and spicy, with deep notes of plum, chocolate, and black pepper. Others are buttery, or astringent, or … zippy.
And even if everyone’s palate is a bit different (after all, what tastes like sour cherry to you might taste like blackcurrant to someone else), these descriptions at least give us a sense of what to expect.
But what if these descriptions were less nuanced? And instead of calling out specific fruits or spices, each one simply said “red” or “white” or “fruity?”
You could still pick a bottle off the shelf, but it wouldn’t be a very informed choice.
Unfortunately, that kind of experience — where a description simply isn’t descriptive enough — is something that people with visual impairments encounter all the time with image alt descriptions (also called alt text).
In this post, we explain why alt text is so important for digital accessibility, highlight what the wine industry does so well, and discuss how to apply those best practices to your own alt text.
Why Does Alt Text Matter?
Alt text is a written description of an image that screen readers can read out loud — or convert to Braille — for people with visual impairments, sensory processing disorders, or learning disorders.
Done right, alt text can paint a complete picture of a website for people who cannot perceive images visually.
Unfortunately, some businesses don’t know they need to add alt text for images. Or they write alt text that sounds more like a file name (like “image of blue shirt”) than a description of what’s on screen.
This can be a major barrier to digital accessibility, especially for people who rely on alt text to help them make decisions.
Take online shopping, for example. For sighted users, it’s easy to look at an image of a shirt and decide if it’s the right one. But for screen reader users, poor alt text means that crucial details are often left out:
- Does the shirt have a visible texture?
- If it has a pattern, how thick are the lines?
- Is it loose and flowy, or fitted through the shoulders and waist?
This isn’t a small population of users, either. In the United States, 12 million people over the age of 40 have some type of visual impairment, including one million who are registered blind.
What Does the Wine Industry Get Right About Alt Text?
There are plenty of opinions on the “best” way to write alt text. Some screen reader users want it to be as succinct as possible; others prefer longer descriptions that they can ignore if needed.
As Chris Preiman, a member of AudioEye’s A11iance team, put it:
Err on the side of verbosity. I can ignore what you put in. I can’t ignore what’s not there.
The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to alt text. What matters is making sure that the most important information is communicated, whether that takes five words or 50.
Focusing on those key details is what the wine industry does so well.
Some winemakers add a few embellishments, but each description addresses the three things a customer needs to know about a particular wine:
- What it tastes like.
- What it smells like (the “aroma” or “nose”).
- What it’s like to drink (the “mouthfeel”).
If you apply that approach to your own alt text, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your descriptions become sharp, to the point, and illustrative. Here’s how to do it:
Want To Write Better Alt Text? Start by Answering Your Audience’s Biggest Questions.
If you ask almost any marketer, they’ll say the key to effective marketing is being able to think like your customer. What do they care about? What problem are they trying to solve?
Businesses spend a lot of time and money trying to answer those questions. But for some reason, alt text doesn’t get the same level of scrutiny.
That’s a missed opportunity.
If you want your alt text to be a value add (and not just a source of annoyance), you should think about what questions your image is supposed to address — and make sure your alt text does as well.
We’ve already covered what that might sound like for a bottle of wine or shirt, but it can be applied to almost any product or service. Take an after-school program for kids, for example.
Parents looking into the program don’t just want to know that there are kids in the classroom. (That’s more or less implied.) They want to know what the experience is going to be like for their child. What are the kids playing with? Do they seem happy? Are they playing in a large group or engaging 1:1 with teachers?
Here are three examples of what alt text might look like for a photo of the program, ordered from bad to best:
- BAD: “Image of kids in a classroom.” (For the record, starting alt text with “image of” or “picture of” is a common mistake. Screen readers already announce images as such, so including phrases like this in the alt text only disrupts the user experience.)
- BETTER: “Three kids playing together at a table.”
- BEST: “Three smiling kids are seated at a table playing with magnets. In the background, a teacher reads a book to another kid.”
Hopefully, the third example gives you a much better sense of what’s actually in the picture — and that’s the goal of good alt text.
More Alt Text Resources
Want to learn more about alt text? Check out our design team’s latest post on 5 Tips for Creating Accessible Web Designs or some of our favorite alt text resources:
- An alt Decision Tree: This decision tree from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) walks through the steps to determine if alt text is needed.
- Alternative Text: Learn more about alt text with this in-depth article from WebAIM.
- Why Alt Text Matters: Take a deeper dive into why alt text matters for your website — and how it impacts accessibility.