Add Descriptions to Pictures we Share: Why People Don’t, What the Benefits are, and Two Rules for making them Count

Introduction

Posting pictures is something we do every day. Maybe it’s a cute outfit you’re child’s wearing. It could be a ginormous sandwich you’re having for lunch. Possibly, it’s a cloud you truly think looks like a dinosaur. No matter what it is, the process usually goes something like this.

  • Take the picture or pictures.
  • Call up the share sheet on your mobile device, and choose your social network.
    • Insert your commentary with appropriate hashtags, and hit the post button.
  • Wait for likes and comments.

Most people who go through this process miss a step. That step is adding a description (also known as alternative or alt text) to the photo. If you’re reading this post, it’s probably because you have decided that you want to be adding alt text (descriptions) to your photos, and you want to make them as effective as possible for people viewing your posts. In other words, you’ve typed very specific search terms into the search engine of your choice because this is something you’re actively looking for. If this isn’t the case, and you’re just learning about alt text for the first time, don’t worry. Here is a page that offers a summary of what alternative text is, how to add it to photos, and includes other tips for making sure your content is as accessible to your audience as possible. Since I don’t believe in rehashing content that is already available and well-written, I’m going to assume that you’ve either read the page I’ve just linked to, or that you’ve at least done your research into the platform you’ve chosen to use to find out what it offers for adding descriptions to your pictures. With that said, I’ll be talking about the experience I had that made me realize why most people never think to add descriptions to their photos, describe two benefits to doing so, and talk about the following two rules, which are actually more like guidelines, for making your descriptions as effective as possible:

  1. Be as concise and detailed as possible.
  2. Adjust your description according to your purpose and audience.

Why Aren’t People Describing Their Photos?

Remember the process I said you go through to share your photos? More specifically, remember the step that references the share sheet on your mobile device? Here’s what I found out while researching platforms to share my own experiences with photography. When you choose a photo from your mobile device and use the share sheet to post it, the option to add alternative text or a description for the photo isn’t available. This is true even if the platform in question gives users the ability to include this information with their posts when made through the website or app for that platform. This means that people are not always making the decision to not include descriptions with their photos, but rather that they are not being given the choice at all because they’re taking the most user friendly and direct route to sharing their content.

Again, if you’re reading this, it’s because you’ve decided that including descriptions with your photos is something you should and want to do. You have your own reasons and you want to make sure you’re being effective. If you’re still making that decision, or just in case you like to be reminded that taking the extra steps to add descriptions is worth it, the next section describes two benefits of this process.

Two Benefits to Adding Descriptions to Your Pictures

The first benefit to adding descriptions by using alternative text to your pictures is that it makes your content accessible to everyone, including viewers with visual impairments. With the increasing adoption rate by large technology companies of universal design, more visually impaired people than ever have access to the Internet and its content. In a digital world where descriptions of photos are desired but not largely available, you can stand out as a person who is aware of the different needs of others and/or technologically savy just by taking the extra steps to add alternative text to your photos. You’re also making your content more accessible to search engines.

If you take a few seconds to think about it, you’ll realize making sure your photos have appropriate descriptions can make it easier for people to find your content. Search engines provide results based on the text a user types into the search box. While it is possible to filter results to images, those images are found based on the text in the search box. In other words, describing your images lets the search engine properly index them and lead people to your content. With these things in mind, let’s talk about how to make sure the descriptions are as effective as possible.

Be Detailed and Concise

A baby dragon on its trainer's arm, ready to hunt.

Most people tend to think the title of image is enough of a description. I like dragons, and I tend to use them for examples when I can. The original title of this picture is “Baby Dragon”. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, and we’re only using two to describe it, it should be immediately clear that something important is being left out. For starters, “baby dragon” can mean a lot of things.It could mean a dragon just hatched, it could mean a small, not yet vicious dragon that someone thinks they can tame, or it could and does mean that it is a small dragon on its trainer’s arm, ready to hunt. What’s important is that we, the ones posting the picture make sure to provide the relevant details in as few words as possible. The way this is done depends on the content that is being posted.

For example, if the content is a meme, both text and details of the picture should be included in the alt text. Similarly, if the picture is all text, something that occurs on both Twitter and Instagram, the text of the picture needs to be included in the alt text. This allows our audience to have quick access to the information. This also means that people in the photo who are an important part of the photo should be identified, and that screen shots should include descriptions of the important parts of the screen. This last is especially true if you are posting how-to articles so viewers can make sure they’re on the correct step in the guide.

In regard to being concise, a lot can be done simply by not repeating details that are in the text of your post. For example, if your post text says, “Lovely night at the beach” and your picture is of the beach at nighttime, you can leave “beach” and “night” out of the description, and spend more time describing the other elements like the colors of the sunset or how much moon is visible.

Adjust Your Description according to your Purpose and Audience

An orange dragon flying through the sky with the sun in the background.

While you were choosing a platform to share your content, I imagine an important step for you was figuring out which of them would be most accessible to your intended audience. I chose WordPress because it lets me build a website I know is accessible to people who use screen readers, people don’t need an account to read my stuff, and I can post my posts to other social networks. We go through a similar process when describing photos.

I described the baby dragon just by saying “a baby dragon,” but I did not include details like color. As a dragon enthusiast who interacts with other dragon enthusiasts, I can tell you that a lot of significance is placed on the color of the dragon, as well as whether it is Western, Eastern, or Celtic, as this distinction indicates physical characteristics we would expect to find. For the record, the dragon used to start this section is a Western-style dragon, a detail I left out in the alt text. How much detail and what details are necessary will largely depend on who you want to reach.

If you’re posting detailed computer how-tos with screenshots, you’ll probably want to include the name of the screen you’re on, the available options, and any messages that appear if the screenshot is of a result from a single action or series of actions so that someone following the steps in your guide can compare their results. If you’re an artist communicating with other artists, you will likewise need to adjust the level of detail in your descriptions the folks over at mastodon.art have this down to a science.

Conclusion

This post described a reason as to why people don’t add alternative text (descriptions) to photos they upload, the benefits of doing so, and two guidelines for making the descriptions meaningful to the intended audience. Just like any other rules, there are exceptions. There are computer programs that provide descriptions of photos based on complex formulas, but said formulas still don’t always manage to adjust for context to communicate the best meanings behind a picture. Until the day when machines can accurately interpret context, it’s up to us to make sure we’re providing quality descriptions.

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