The new year has begun, and it’s time to reconnect with your customers, colleagues, and friends. Nowadays, social media posts, direct messages, and emails are among the best ways to quickly make your message known. But before sending your beautifully crafted newsletter, update, or friendly post, take a few minutes and check that everyone, regardless of ability, can have access to your updates and warm wishes.
This post is the first of a series in which I’ll discuss a few easy ways that you can make your emails extra awesome. As a screen reader user for nearly 20 years and a communications specialist with Knowbility, there’s a thing or two I’ve learned about web accessibility. And though I focus on email here, much of what you learn here can be applied to your social media posts and direct messages.
If you’re an accessibility pro, then much of what I write here should be a refresher. But don’t worry if you’re new to all this. It’s my hope that my examples will make sense to you, and that you can put to practice some of my tips right away.
Why are subject lines important?
The idea of having good titles for web pages is both good for accessibility and good for usability. Users running multiple browser tabs can quickly determine which ones are open, thus gaining a powerfully efficient web experience. Along the same lines, having subject lines that are succinct, light on punctuation marks, and written in mixed case will prepare your readers for what to expect in the email. This is especially helpful for people who use screen readers and magnification software.
Punctuation in email subject lines
By default, JAWS and NVDA, the two most common screen readers for Windows, announce commonly-used punctuation marks including dashes, colons, parentheses, and brackets. Unless necessary, try writing subject lines without these marks. Colons after “Re” and “FWD” have been around for such a long time that I’ve gotten used to them. But give it a shot and try shorter, punchier subject lines that get to the point faster!
Use of all caps text
Likewise, reading all caps text can be a challenge to people with low vision who use screen magnification software. As Jason Santa Maria wrote in 2014 for A List Apart, “Compared to the normal sentence-case text, the all-caps text feels pretty impenetrable. That’s because the capital letters are blocky and don’t create much contrast between themselves and the whitespace around them.”
Unless you’re writing the abbreviation of an organization or a word that may be confused with something else if written in mixed case, give it a whirl and try using fewer all caps words. The same goes for punctuation. If you find it absolutely necessary, then use the punctuation in question. For me, it’s listening to parentheses and brackets that take up the most time. This takes into account that JAWS, NVDA, and VoiceOver all shorten parentheses to “left paren” and “right paren.” When the punctuation verbosity is set to the default mode. I could decrease the punctuation level, but that would have big ramifications in other situations.
To demonstrate my point:
Original subject line:
[WEBINAR] Fri 1/18 at 12 PM EST - Start off 2019 right!
Improved subject line
Webinar: Fri 1/18 at 12 PM EST - Start off 2019 right!
Removing the brackets improves the flow of the screen reader’s synthetic speech. I added a colon because, as I mentioned earlier, colons are widely used, and they serve as a natural break, visually, in speech, and on a braille display, between the first part of the subject line and the rest of the message.
Making “Webinar” a mixed-case word is also an improvement for people with low vision who use magnification software. I kept other punctuation marks from the original and the abbreviations in all caps because they’re presented in the same way across the web and changing them might create confusion. Changing a date from “1/18” to “118” would be a problem.
The goal of this tip is not to redefine abbreviations or start a punctuation revolution, but rather to help everyone make sense of subject lines faster and help them get to the good stuff in the body of your email.
If you have questions, comments, or want to add your perspective, please let us know via email or on Twitter @knowbility. And, if you need help with all the other tasks related to accessible design, development, and leadership support, we’re here for you.