Accessibility in Email: Making it real

It’s almost six years since I took the stage at The Email Design Conference, 2015, in London, and challenged the email marketing industry to implement ‘A Type of Accessibility’ into their email campaigns — at a time when accessibility in email was talked about, but not implemented.

‘A Type of Accessibility’. My talk at The Email Design Conference, 2015.

It’s been exciting to see, how since that day, the industry has embraced accessibility, with organisations like Litmus and Email on Acid, and individuals like Mark Robbins and Elliot Ross, contributing to the conversation and making a difference.

A type of accessibility

What I covered in that first talk in 2015 is still relevant today. Along with other insights we’ve made as an industry, they remain the go-to implementations for accessibility in email. A logical code order. Live text, text alignment, text size (font-size) and text spacing (line-height). Colour use, colour contrast and ‘blue links’. Alternative text, alt attributes and semantic elements (using margin:0; to control spacing). Plain text versions and testing using tools like WebAIMs WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool. These were all aspects of WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) based accessible email design and development I encouraged the industry to use that day.

It’s one thing to talk about accessibility. It’s quite another to put it into practice.

Practising accessibility

It’s one thing to talk about accessibility. It’s quite another to put it into practice. Putting accessibility into practice is something I’ve had the privilege to do in my email career. I did in my capacity as Email Design and Development Manager at Skipton Building Society when I designed and developed their accessible marketing and operational emails (arguably the first emails from any building society to meet WCAG 2.1 AA). I did in my capacity as Email Specialist at Communisis for Nationwide Building Society when I consulted in the design and development of their marketing emails (arguably the first emails from any building society briefed to meet and continue to meet WCAG 2.1 AA).

Innovating accessibility

However, for me, meeting WCAG has never been enough. My personal mission towards accessibility, and accessibility in email, in particular, has caused me to ask, ‘What more can I do to make emails even more accessible, and increase the options available to recipients to choose how they would like to read and interact with the emails they receive?’ It’s this line of thinking that’s led me to implement accessibility in email above and beyond WCAG. And, it’s this line of thinking that’s led me to create innovations, such as accessible text links and the Accessibility Switcher™.

We, as the email marketing industry, have not been good at testing and learning about the effectiveness of implementing accessibility.

Testing and learning about accessibility

I’ve spent years implementing accessibility into email (I believe it’s essential) and will continue to do so. But how do I know, and we know as an industry, how effective those accessibility practices and innovations are? Do I accept they’re effective because they’re in WCAG, or do we accept, as an industry, they’re effective because they were in a talk on accessibility in email? We have to remember that WCAG implementations into email vary from implementations into web because of the email challenges with which we’re all familiar. For a channel that puts so much emphasis on testing and learning, I, and we, as the email marketing industry, have not been good at testing and learning about the effectiveness of implementing accessibility.

Well, that’s about to change.

It’s been my desire for some time now to put the accessibility practices and innovations we’ve made to the test through usability testing. Only when we test them with people other than ourselves can we understand their true value, understand how we can improve them, and help others understand their importance. With this in mind, I approached ActionRocket, who have been actively focusing on accessibility in email in recent times, to join me, as Beyond the Envelope™ in a purposeful partnership, to actively conduct this usability testing.

Email for All. Email accessibility made real.

Email for All

The result of this partnership is ‘Email for All’ (coincidentally the title of my keynote at Inbox Expo 2020!). And the first product of this partnership — the survey I envisaged when I began to think about usability testing accessibility practices and innovations. The insights from this survey will be shared amongst the industry, and as an industry, we’ll then be able to have more meaningful and informed conversations about accessibility with colleagues and clients alike — email accessibility made real.

aka Paul Airy – follower of Jesus, husband, father, and Accessibility & Usability Consultant, with a particular fondness for typography. #EmailGeek

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store