Instructions don’t rely solely on sensory characteristics.


“Sensory characteristics” is an important but complicated-sounding phrase in web accessibility. It’s actually far less complicated than it sounds. The sensory characteristics of components are things like shapes, sounds, positioning, orientation, sound, colour and size.

You’ll often come across sensory characteristics in instructions to users. Saying things like “Use the search bar on the right” isn’t helpful to a user who doesn’t understand what ‘right’ is and “Click the green button” doesn’t help users who can’t see green.

How to Pass

Getting sensory characteristics right is mainly a case of using your common sense. There are no technical requirements, just good and sensible copywriting:

  • Use text labels to elements in addition to sensory characteristics
  • Don’t user instructions that only use sensory characteristics
  • Avoid instructions that rely on sound


Creating accessible instructions is great for everyone. The clearer your instructions are, the more likely users will follow them.

Good instruction will use several sensory characteristics. Consider the accessibility of these examples:

  1. ‘Use the search box’
  2. ‘Use the search box on the right’
  3. ‘Search by using the green rectangular box labelled ‘Search’ at the top right of the page’

The first two won’t pass, they don’t give users enough sensory information. The third uses text labelling to help the user.

We often have an aversion to adding words, feeling that they can confuse users. In this case, the opposite is true. When you need instructions, make them count.

Avoid sound for instructions. It’s always hard to tell what the sound means and what a user did to make it happen. A prime example is if you use sounds to alert users to errors on a form. The user can’t tell exactly what made the error, they can’t even be sure the sound indicated an error. Use visual cues instead such as colour and symbols.

By making sure you don’t rely solely on colour in your instructions, you can work towards Guideline 1.4.1.

See Also

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I'm Luke, I started Wuhcag in 2012 to help people like you get to grips with web accessibility. Check out my book, 'How to Meet the WCAG 2.0'.

6 comments on “1.3.3 – Sensory Characteristics (Level A)

    Richard says:

    One thing that interests me about the sensory characteristics success criterion, is that it is possible to be over literal when checking it, so I am glad you have used the phrase “common sense” in your post. For example if a page had the instruction “Click on the button at the far right of the page”, then that would not be enough to pass the criterion. However, if it said “Click on the button at the very top of the page” or “the very bottom of the page”, I would treat that differently, because there is a clear start and end to a page so a screenreader user would have no difficulty in finding the top or bottom, even though these are really visual cues.

      Luke McGrath says:

      Hi Richard, thanks for getting involved. You’re right about the importance of using common sense here – there’s a danger that instructions can end up being confusing more than useful (Click on the square button with rounded corners that’s a dark green colour and at the bottom right of the page with the word “Click” on it).

      Best way to check your work is to get a set of users (of all abilities) to test your site out.

    Kyle says:

    Just wanted to say thanks – you’ve done a great job on your website and I appreciate your iniative to help simplify the WCAG contents. It makes it much easier for someone who is new to understanding accessiblity actually understand it.

    Luke McGrath says:

    Thanks Kyle, that’s very nice of you to say so. Glad I’ve been useful to you, do let me know if there’s anything I can help with or questions I can answer for you.

    Kyle says:

    I would love to read your blog regarding guideline 4.1 and more specifically 4.1.1 – parsing. I would say this is definitely the one where I have the most trouble understanding. I noticed you write one every 7 days and will be looking forward to the time you speak on parsing.

      Luke McGrath says:

      Keep your eyes peeled Kyle, it’s on its way! If you have Twitter or Google+ I always post a link to new info on this blog, or you can subscribe to my feed in Google Reader (other RSS readers are available).


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