Use more than one sense for instructions

Sensory characteristics is an important but ridiculous-sounding phrase in web accessibility. It’s actually far less complicated than it sounds. The sensory characteristics of your website are things like shape, sound, position and size.

You’ll often come across sensory characteristics in instructions to your users. Saying things like ‘Use the search bar on the right’ isn’t helpful to a user who doesn’t understand what right is. The main solution is to use more than one indicator for instructions.

What to do

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

  • Use more than one sense for instructions.
  • 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 – this is especially useful for things like buying instructions. Getting this guideline right might just make you more money or get you more users by reducing dropouts.

A good instruction will use several sensory characteristics. Consider the accessibility of these four examples:

  • ‘Use the search box’
  • ‘Use the search box on the right’
  • ‘Search by using the green rectangle box labelled ‘Search’ on the right’
  • ‘Search by using the rectangle box at the very top right of this page’

Web designers often have an aversion to adding words, feeling that it adds to confusion. In this case, the opposite can be true. Of course, ideally you want a website that feels instinctive with clear actions. When you need instructions, get them right.

It’s best to avoid sound on a website, other than in media. No one likes unexpected sounds. It’s always hard to tell what the sound means and what you did do 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 won’t even be sure the sound indicated an error. Your users with hearing impairments have no chance.

For forms, use a clear visual clue for errors and avoid sounds altogether.

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

See also

About Author

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'.
  • 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.

    • 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

    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.

  • 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

    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.

    • 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).