Stop Giving Control Hints to Screen Readers

TL;DR: for standard HTML controls and standard ARIA patterns (widgets), you do not need to add instructions for screen readers on how to use them nor what they are.

When a screen reader encounters an element on the page that invites interaction beyond reading, it typically provides users with instructions how to consume or interact with it. As users get more familiar with the tools, they can skip some of those instructions or disable them altogether.

If in addition to these screen reader defaults you add instructions, then they may conflict, they may be redundant, they may not apply to the form factor, and they will be verbose. If you use aria-label, then they will not translate (excepting some Chrome users).

This also extends to telling users what a control is and, in some cases, telling a user its state. A checkbox with checked tells a user it is checked. A <button aria-pressed="true"> tells a user it is pressed.

Examples I have seen, heavily simplified:

<button aria-label="Click button to mark">[icon]</button>

<fieldset>
  <legend aria-label="Use arrow keys to choose one.">Choose one</legend>
  [… radio buttons …]
</fieldset>

<th aria-sort="ascending">
  Date<span class="visually-hidden">, sorted ascending</span>
</th>

<li role="presentation">
  <a href="#Reviews" role="tab" id="Tab1" onclick="[…]">
    Reviews<span class="visually-hidden"> Tab</span>
  </a>
</li>

When you are using native HTML for its intended purpose, a screen reader will give appropriate instructions. When you are using ARIA patterns (see widget roles) as defined (without folding in your own customizations), a screen reader will give appropriate instructions.

Similarly, avoid naming a specific pattern. Different browser and screen reader pairings can call the same control different things. For example, no user knows what a combobox is (nor do half the developers I speak to, interestingly), so probably do not use that word with users.

To simplify how confusing this can be:

All of this, of course, goes out the window once you start building custom patterns, modifying existing patterns, or rolling your own custom elements. Then you have to not only provide everything but potentially override the defaults.

It’s pretty cool what standard HTML gives you for free.

Code Examples

I put together a page with some of the more common patterns that I see turned into verbose gibberish, but I have excluded the gibberish. If you have a screen reader, play around with them yourself. Hint: you have a screen reader; there is one built into the device you are using right now.

Following this I have videos across some screen reader and browser combinations demonstrating how each is announced.

See the Pen Controls and Widgets by Adrian Roselli (@aardrian) on CodePen.

Videos

Using the example patterns above I recorded some basic interactions across seven screen reader and browser combinations. These are meant to demonstrate how each is announced by default. I am not just pressing the Tab key; in the tables I use table navigation commands, for example.

If you find you are getting different announcements on the example page, that may be a function of verbosity settings (I leave mine at defaults), a different screen reader version, a different browser version, or potentially browser plug-ins that manipulate the DOM.

You may see in the videos another section that I do not navigate and that is not in the sample above. I am saving that for a follow-up post after more testing.

VoiceOver with Safari on macOS. This is the most verbose of the examples
JAWS 2018 with Internet Explorer 11. IE11 does not support <details> / <summary>. Support for aria-controls, where it announces JAWS Key + Alt + M in the tabs, has been dropped from the defaults in JAWS 2019.
JAWS 2018 with Chrome 77. Support for aria-controls, where it announces JAWS Key + Alt + M in the tabs, has been dropped from the defaults in JAWS 2019.
JAWS 2018 with Firefox 70. Support for aria-controls, where it announces JAWS Key + Alt + M in the tabs, has been dropped from the defaults in JAWS 2019.
NVDA 2019.2 with Firefox 70.
TalkBack with Chrome on Android 9. I cheated here on the tables and used explore by touch just to keep the announcement experience similar to the other examples. TalkBack offers no special table navigation options.
VoiceOver with Safari on iOS. Yes, I should have turned it sideways. And yes, VoiceOver makes up numbers when reading <caption>s.

11 Comments

Reply

How would you consider a grid of cards (container with role=”grid”)? would adding keyboard navigation instructions (“use arrows to navigate cards”) as a description, not as a label, be redundant according to the above argument?

In response to Neil. Reply

Neil, visible plain text instructions would be necessary in that model as it affects all users. However, note that arrow keys are intercepted by screen readers for virtual cursor navigation, so you may find that your pattern does not work well for screen reader users anyway.

As an aside, so far the only valid use case I have found for the grid role is to create a spreadsheet (like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets), and those also use a an application role on an ancestor, something I would not recommend for a card interface.

In response to Adrian Roselli. Reply

Thanks Adrian.
Let me elaborate a bit about the scenario I am facing: a long list of cards, each card has a heading, a short paragraph and a CFA button.

I think the challenge I am facing here is to balance between good KB usability – allowing quick card navigation , and a good SR usability – communicate the presentation order through the grid semantics, probably at the cost of overriding arrow navigation for Windows OS SR users.
So, my following questions would be:
#1 Would the above affect all users or all keyboard users? In case [all] keyboard users only, I thought I may resolve this by displaying the hidden description on first item focus (as a tooltip). This way all keyboard users (sighted and blind) would be able to perceive the relevant information for keyboard navigation.
#2 Regarding conflict with SR, considering the use case detailed above, wouldn’t a space separated values of the heading id and the paragraph id in the aria-labelledby attribute on the card, compensate for this “conflict”? More importantly, wouldn’t the grid semantics trigger focus mode?
Considering the use of role dialog for modals, the potential benefit of adding grid semantics, could be the mere indication of presentation order for SR users.

Neil Osman; . Permalink
In response to Neil Osman. Reply

You describe the content of a typical card. I am still assuming you mean role="grid" on the container, not display: grid.

This does not correspond to the typical use of a grid role. If you are trying to communicate the presentation order, there may be a greater risk there since the DOM order should be the presentation order to keyboard and screen reader users.

Remember that a screen reader user can navigate the content natively with Tab to traverse the interactive controls, the h key to traverse headings, and arrow keys to traverse the content.

1. What you propose would affect anyone who uses a keyboard. Separately, do not rely on a tool-tip or other focus-only display, as that excludes touch and voice users.

2. No and no. You would create an overly-verbose control (for browsers that support aria-labelledby on non-interactive elements), and grid semantics on their own do not add keyboard support; you still have to script it.

I do not think the dialog role is a good analogue here, since it does not indicate presentation order either.

This is a little hard to discuss in comments, so if you have a sample drop me an email.

Reply

What do you think about hints for search boxes for autosuggest and autocomplete controls; i.e, what WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices refers to as “Combo Box” widgets? These seem like examples where hints are almost always absolutely necessary.

Peter Weil; . Permalink
In response to Peter Weil. Reply

JAWS gives instructions for these already if you follow the ARIA authoring patterns. I’d love it if the other screen readers would do the same.

Reply

You say open combobox, user is a human.

In response to James. Reply

Apparently emojis don’t work in your comments. That was supposed to be the quote followed by laughing emojis. :)

In response to James. Reply

(I am testing if WordPress commenting can handle them — and no it cannot)

Reply

Not really getting the hint with the “built-in screen reader” .. where is that supposed to be located? Or are you intentionally ignoring the fact that there is more than just Windoze and Mac OS Argh on the desktop platform?

cu, w0lf.

In response to fwolf. Reply

My statement Hint: you have a screen reader; there is one built into the device you are using right now. is broad because the bulk of my traffic is from Windows and then macOS.

Windows has Narrator, macOS has VoiceOver, GNOME has Orca, iOS has VoiceOver, Android has TalkBack.

If you have an OS outside of that collection, then check your documentation. If you have one of the OSes I listed, check my old answer on Stack Overflow that has some links.

Leave a Comment or Response

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.