Accessibility Challenges in Email Design

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Email has a bad habit of being a rule-breaker, making it tough to translate best practices for the web into an email-friendly format. Resources intended to improve or enhance a user’s experience on the web don’t always work as anticipated when tables and inline CSS are almost certainly a requirement. Since usability and accessibility principles strive to make the web usable by everyone, including those with disabilities, it’s important that those principles apply to email as well.

Below we’ve outlined the most common types of disabilities amongst Americans along with eight email-friendly principles to ensure your messages are usable by all. You also might consider using Email Previews to understand how your email will display to users on different platforms. Email Previews include access to our color blindness filter, which allows you to simulate what a person with red-green color blindness might see when viewing your message.

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Accessibility Challenges in Email Design

Nearly 49 million Americans have some type of disability. These disabilities can range from color blindness and full blindness to cognitive and neurological disorders. Like most people, these users utilize email and the web on a daily basis, presenting some interesting challenges when it comes to designing web and email content. Here, we take a look at these obstacles and offer tips for designing with these Americans in mind.

Types of Disabilities

  • Visually Disabled – Visually disabled users range from those who are partially color blind to those who are fully blind. Colorblind individuals find it hard to distinguish differences in some colors or design elements, such as red and green. Those with visual impairments will likely use screen readers for emails, making it essential to create content that is compatible with the screen reader.
  • Physically Disabled – Those with physical limitations can find emails with busy design schemes or multiple elements particularly troublesome. Physically disabled users are often incapable of using a mouse. Therefore, the content in their email should inform them of a new event, sale, etc. without the need to click through to a secondary website.
  • Cognitively and Neurologically Disabled – For users with this particular type of disability, receiving emails that have overly complex design, inconsistent navigation, or distracting elements could potentially hinder their ability to comprehend the email. Individuals with these disabilities may suffer from dyslexia, autism, strokes, etc.

The Disabled Population

Americans with disabilities occupy a far greater percentage of our nation’s population than originally thought; 19.4 percent, or 48.9 million, of non-institutionalized civilians in the US live with a disability.

The number of those considered to be blind with no residual vision is nearly 2 million. Approximately 8 percent of males and 1 percent of females are color blind.

Designing for Disabilities

  1. Text-Only Option – Ensure your emails are sent in a multi-part MIME format, and offer both plain text and HTML options when your user signs up to receive your emails. The HTML version will load an email that contains images while the plain text version will load text-only content. This will allow your users to decide which is the most comfortable format to read.
  2. Be Mindful of Colors – Color brings vivacity to an email. However, for those with color vision deficiencies, complex color schemes in an email can be confusing or painful. Consider how content and copy may appear in an email to color deficient users. For example, if black copy is set against dark red, the elements will become distinguishable to those afflicted with achromatopsia. Use colors with high contrasts to help elements stand out from one another.
  3. Know Your Hierarchy – Establishing a clear hierarchy is particularly important when designing for those with cognitive or neurological disabilities. Placing important information higher in the email or following a predictable flow will help users focus and navigate through the email more easily.
  4. Clickable Links – Clickable links should be large and placed in an obvious location. The size of the link will be particularly beneficial to those who cannot control a mouse with precision. Those with partial visual impairment should not have to struggle to find a clickable link among other distracting images.
  5. Text Size – Use larger font sizes to accommodate visually impaired users. Anything below 14 points on a browser screen requires some effort to read. When selecting the typeface that you will be using in your email, choose ones that are evenly spaced and not too condensed.
  6. Keep it Ragged – Avoid using justified copy in your email. Some users may find the harsh rivers and breaks in the paragraph too difficult to follow. Allowing the text to left align and produce a “rag” will alleviate this. Also ensure that line lengths don’t become too long; 50-70 characters per line is a good guideline.
  7. Screen Readers – While sighted users can visually scan or skip over non-relevant content, blind users must listen to the entire content of the email, one email at a time. With this in mind, ensure a healthy balance of text and images in your design, and tailor the written content in your email to deliver the main message. Also consider how compatible your design is with popular screen readers such as JAWS or Window-Eyes.
  8. Harmful Content – Content that flashes at certain rates or in patterns can cause photo-sensitive seizures in some individuals. Avoid flashing content or including links to videos that may have similar content.

Sources: DaveChaffey.com; PBR.org; Usability.gov; AOA.org; “Designing for Cognitive Disabilities,” by Ruth Ellison.

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