• Best Practices

Make Email Accessibility Your New Year’s Resolution

Nicolas Garnier
5 min read
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As strange as it may seem, accessibility – or making content consumable for all users regardless of ability – is still a new concept online and in emails. The good news is that companies such as Accessibe are making it their mission to make the web accessible by 2025. The bad news is that this means accessibility is, for many organizations, still too complicated and too poorly mastered to be integrated into practices and must be delegated to a third-party company.

Is accessibility optional?

You may wonder if you need email accessibility in the first place. First of all, more people are affected by issues of accessibility than you might think. According to the WHO, nearly one billion people (yes, more than one in ten people!) suffer from a visual impairment (like dyslexia or color blindness), and many of them need assistive technology to consume content.

Secondly, not offering an accessible version of emails has a significant impact on your readership as it will be impossible for some people to make use of the information contained. In terms of usability, it’s therefore much worse than having, say, an email that’s not accurate to the nearest pixel.

If we consider the two previous points and then think about the time and effort that we spend optimizing our emails simply to make them look nice in Outlook.com, which represents much less than 1% of the market, something doesn’t add up when it comes to avoiding accessibility.

If the ethical reasoning isn’t enough, accessibility also pays off from a business perspective. If your emails aren’t accessible, you’re also missing out on a significant audience.

And if you have neither morals nor a mind for business (generally people have at least one of the two), then be aware that laws are being introduced to make accessibility mandatory.

Is accessibility in email difficult to implement?

Great to see you are still here and, hopefully, convinced by the need for accessibility. Looks like I’ve done my job here. So, what needs to be done? When we talk about accessibility, we can generally split the problem into three categories.

There’s a whole lot of things that can be improved, but we’re going to focus here on the easiest practices to implement in order to optimize accessibility of your emails.

Content

In general, your email is built around content to be shared. You can (should) ensure that this content is accessible by checking, among other things, that:

  • The subject and links are descriptive (avoid basic CTAs like “click here” or “open me”): People who need to use a text reader can therefore easily know what to expect.

  • The content is textual: Images do not contain important information, and are all accompanied by alternative text (the “alt” attribute). And take it easy on the gifs!

  • Each paragraph deals with a particular subject and is kept short: This is not only important for people who need to use a text reader (these are unable to skim-read and will have to go through the whole text), but also for dyslexic people and those with other learning difficulties.

  • The content is easy to access: Avoid convoluted phrasing, and opt instead for simple words.

Design

Now that you have the perfect content, you want to make it look as nice as possible. That’s where things can go wrong. From a design perspective, it is important to make sure that you:

  • Favor a logical reading direction: Left to right and top to bottom. Unless you’re creating an email for Harlequin, you can do without patchwork design.

  • Choose fonts that are thick enough and large enough (above size 14): This should be easy now that you have shortened your content. Also, do not forget to increase the line spacing so the content is not cramped and is easy to read.

  • Avoid centered and justified paragraphs: Favor the natural reading direction (left to right or right to left depending on the language) and natural spacing between words, not stretched by justifying the text.

  • Use a strong contrast: As a bonus point, all your users will find this helpful as too weak a contrast can make reading difficult depending on lighting conditions. Also, keep ‘dark mode’ in mind as an increasing number of clients and browsers now support it.

  • Make links and buttons easy to access: Ensure that links are underlined and colored with sufficient contrast, and that they are easy to click or tap. Conversely, avoid coloring and underlining text that is not a link.

Coding

Ok, you have the content and design, so now you can move to implementation and coding. So as not to spoil all the work of our friends (the writers and designers), you should:

  • Respect the HTML semantics: The paragraphs come in organized sections and are preceded by descriptive titles. Make good use of the tags <p> and <h*> in particular.

  • Define the language of your email with the lang attribute: This is very easy to set up, this will allow text readers to process the content correctly.

  • Include the role=presentation attribute for the table HTML tag: This allows text readers to understand that this is a presentation element and not a table of data. 

  • Offer a text version – and yes, as too many emails are still sent without following all these good practices, many users prefer the text version. You should be able to generate this automatically from your messaging platform, so there’s no excuse for not doing it!

Tools for action

Yes I know, we are all super busy and accessibility is yet another thing to check when you already spend ages testing your emails on clients, including Lotus Notes. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.

In fact, there are lots of tools that let you test a whole lot of things: readability, semantics, etc. However, although these tools do their job very well, trying to integrate them into your process can be too manual and time-consuming and often remains a false resolution (that I know you will not keep).

We therefore recommend using Accessible-email.org to get started. This tool analyses an HTML file and sends you a list of errors and things to improve to make the email accessible. It is therefore super easy to integrate into a workflow, both for checking your email before sending it and for implementing good practices.

If you want to know more, either because it’s a subject that interests you or out of fear of being replaced by a machine, we recommend checking out the WCAG checklists. These checklists are organized by level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and are a great way to increase your accessibility skills as you use them.

Wrapping up

Email accessibility may feel difficult to implement at first, especially considering all of the other testing and creating you’re doing with your emails. But, by following best design, content, and coding practices, you can easily create emails that reach every member of your audience and provide them a great user experience.

We hope this article will help you to make accessibility a priority and that you will have realized it is both important and not so hard to do.

Last updated on January 20, 2021

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