Write instructions that don't rely on just one characteristic

Example of accessible and inaccessible instructions
Image description: Accessible and inaccessible comparison fo instructions. The accessible example has a blue button with a question mark with text that says, "For assistance, click on the help button - the blue button with a question mark icon in the upper right." The inaccessible example has the same button with text that says, "For assistance, click on the help button."

This page is in progress -

If you would like to contribute or make a case to prioritize this page, please fill out the form below.

Why This is Important

Instructions that use multiple different descriptors (such as shape, color, placement, size, etc.) helps people with a diversity of disabilities understand instructions.

Blind and visually impaired people use screen readers to interact with websites and apps. A screen reader is a type of assistive tech that converts things on screen to audio and/or braille. It's important that things are understandable and interactive to screen readers.

Keyboard accessibility is essential for people who do not use a computer mouse (which might be because they have unpredictable or very specific movement due to a motor disability). Many Blind and visually impaired people also use keyboard interactions in order to use their screen reader.

Error support is accessible to people with a diversity of disabilities. A cognitive disability might affect how a person perceives and understands things. A physical disability might lead to unpredictable movement. Other factors such as environment, stress, and multi-tasking may also lead to errors.

In order to be accessible, gestures and interactions must account for people with physical and motor disabilities, who might have unpredictable or very specific movement.

Having descriptive instructions is helpful to Blind and visually impaired people, Deaf and hard of hearing people, and those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities.

There is a wide diversity of people who may not be able to see, hear, or experience certain descriptors (e.g. the button is blue, the notification has a doorbell sound, etc.) Therefore, including multiple different types is a better guarantee that people will understand instructions.

This references WCAG criterion 1.3.3 Sensory Characteristics (Level A).

Level AAA compliance is considered more difficult to meet because it requires more resources to fulfill. It also might encompass conflicting access needs (meaning what is accessible to some might be inaccessible to others). Use your best judgment of your target audience and your team's capabilities to determine if this is a pragmatic goal to reach.

How to Implement This

Note - To be honest, I think this rule may be a somewhat outdated internet tradition from the '90s. We don't typically encourage too many instructions in software design these days because we believe that the design should be so intuitive that it speaks for itself. If you have any feedback on this content please feel free to add in the form below.

The main application of this rule is in writing the help/FAQ guide. Make sure to use more than one descriptor when writing instructions.

These articles help provide more detail on different sensory characteristics.

These writing guides provide helpful direction for writing accessible content.

Martial arts metaphor (I love martial arts and often use metaphors to relate it to product design). In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a grappling martial art, there are a fair number of Blind practitioners and teachers. A best practice that I've heard to teach BJJ to Blind folks is to be descriptive and specific instead of vague.

  • Vague: put your hand here
  • Descriptive: put your right hand on your opponent's right shoulder, reaching as far toward their shoulder blade as you can

How to Test This

Manual Test
Semi-Automated Test
Automated Test

Facilitate user testing with people of a wide diversity of disabilities to get feedback on the instructions.


No credits yet. But this could be you!
No items found.

Contribute and Give Feedback

If you would like to provide feedback or contribute content on this resource, please fill out the form below.

Thank you, your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please check your internet connection and try again.

If you continue to encounter issues, please reach out to alexyingchen(at)gmail.com.