Email accessibility is crucial: here’s how to get it right  

By James Hall, Commercial Director, Striata UK

While most people understand the importance of making the physical world as accessible to as many people as possible, including those with disabilities, digital accessibility is less well-regarded but equally important. And while a lot of ground has been covered with regard to the websites, attention is now slowly turning to email.

James Hall
James Hall

Much time is spent designing, developing and testing emails to ensure they render correctly on different screen sizes and in the most commonly used email clients, to provide a good email experience. Not enough attention is paid, however, to ensuring people who have disabilities are able to consume these emails.

To put that into perspective, according to the World Health Organisation, at least 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment, which ranges from needing glasses to total blindness. That’s more than the total user base of Gmail (1.5 billion) and logically would make up a significant portion of the 4 billion email users, worldwide. Why should there be any less effort spent on them to ensure an email renders well on the assistive device they use.

But what does email accessibility look like and how can you ensure that your emails are as accessible as possible?

What is email accessibility?

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Email accessibility is the practice of making an email easy to read for as wide an audience as possible, including those with visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities. Email accessibility is an important part of User Experience (UX) and applying accessibility principles will result in the best possible experience for all users.

There are a number of assistive technologies that help people with disabilities access the web and email. These include screen readers (used by people with visual impairment, mobility limitations and learning disabilities), which read the content of a screen aloud using text-to-speech, and screen magnifiers (used by people with low or partial vision) which enlarge a portion of the screen so that the content is readable.

Content 

Most email writers already know the importance of ensuring that the content has a logical flow, and the message is easy to understand. This becomes more important when one considers how email will be read by a visually impaired person or anyone with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia.

So, for example, subject lines should be short and to the point in order to perform best when read aloud through a screen reader. Language should be similarly clear and concise. Rather use simple words and language making it easier to understand for both those with cognitive difficulties, as well easier to understand when read through a screen reader.

For the same reason paragraphs should be short and well structured, and long lists and tables should be avoided.

Designing for accessibility

Layout and design accounts for a large part of how accessible an email will be, from color, font size and font choices, to the way images are treated. As with design for different screen sizes, there are guidelines for designing emails that are suitable for screen readers and magnifiers.

Making judicious use of whitespace around paragraphs, bulleted copy and images is not only good for accessibility, it makes skim-reading easier too. Another important factor when designing for accessibility is color, especially for users that are color blind. Blue is a good color to use, because it is not affected by red and green color blindness.

There should also be adequate contrast between the text and background color of your ‘call to action buttons, and links should be prominent and easy to click.

HTML Developers 

Understanding how an email is read using a screen reader and how it appears using a magnifier is something all HTML coders should know.

Some basic guidelines include using heading styles in logical sequence (making it easier for someone using a screen reader to navigate by sections), limiting the animation to 3 seconds in  animated gifs, avoiding tables, and cutting back on the use of multiple spaces in your code as a screen reader will read these out loud as “blank”.

Testers 

Whilst an email is often tested across all major device types, screen sizes, and email clients, it’s worth making the extra effort when it comes to accessibility.

Fortunately, there are tools that make this easier. For example, some email testing platforms such as Litmus and Email on Acid now offer accessibility testing features as part of their service.

Even with the use of these tools, however, one should still test email with images off to see how readable it is for people who don’t see the images (for whatever reason). Check the flow of information and whether the essence of the message is conveyed, even if no images are present. Additionally, skim-read the email in a few seconds as this is how most people read online.

Worthwhile effort 

While ensuring that your emails are fully accessible does take effort, there can be no denying that it’s worth the investment.

Most of the work required to ensure that blind people and those with visual impairment can access your emails is in line with email best practice.

The overall email experience, therefore, won’t just be improved for customers with disabilities but for everyone.

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