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'.