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Say It With a Face

Accessible Communications with Emojis and Emoticons

6/17/2020 11:28:24 AM

Smiling face emoji with various emojis in the background.

Emoticons and emojis are great tools to convey ideas and emotions, when you keep your audience in mind. Just as you may not speak with co-workers the way you talk with your friends, you should consider your audience when making your emoji or emoticon selections. Since their original use in text messages, these icons have moved into everyday communications.

We now commonly encounter them in social media posts, business tools like Microsoft Teams, and even emails. Digital accessibility questions about using emoticons and emojis include:

  • How do people add emojis if they do not use a mouse? 
  • Is there a quick check list of considerations for when we would like to use emoticons and emojis?
  • Are there users with disabilities that may find them difficult to use?
  • How are they read by assistive technologies? Will users hear some odd letters, like a y?

What is an Emoticon? What is an Emoji?

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines an emoticon as “punctuation marks, letters, and numbers used to create pictorial icons that generally display an emotion or sentiment.” Think: emotional icon. If you place a colon and a close parenthesis side by side, they are read as a happy face even though it may visually appear sideways (hint: one of the potential issues for readers). Emojis are picture symbols “of faces, objects, and symbols.” 

For those people looking for more technical definitions Rob Reed covers many of the terms such as Unicode and character sets in “Everything You Need To Know About Emoji.” He also references the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) information on character encoding. 

Adding Emojis and Emoticons Without a Mouse

Depending on your application, you can sometimes use characters on your keyboard to add emoticons and emojis. For example (y) creates a thumbs up icon in applications like Skype for Business. Windows 10 keyboard tips and tricks notes that you can use: 

  • Windows logo key + period to get the emoji keyboard, and
  • The Alt key (held down) while you type the four-digit code for an emoticon, using the number pad. Don’t have a keyboard with a number pad? How to Use Alt Codes has other options.

There are times where you may want to reassign the default key combination in certain applications for emojis and emoticons. For example, consider (y). Cliff Tyllick, accessibility consultant, recommends, “Look in QuickCorrect and change the key combination to something like (.y) or *y). Otherwise when you type references to Item (y) they will become Item 👍 (thumbs up) —just like ‘Item (c)’ will become ‘Item [copyright symbol]’ unless you make a similar edit.”

Some interfaces have the option of adding emojis and emoticons into their text editing options. You can navigate to the emoji option, or the insert icon option, to get a list or menu of available options. 

Want some fun Alt codes to try out? Check out: ALT Codes for Emoticons, Cat Faces & Gesture Symbols.

Quick Checklist for Using Emojis and Emoticons

  1. Movement: Best practice is to use emojis or emoticons that do not move. Avoid those that move continuously and use with caution if they move for a brief period. This may cause issues for some of your readers. 
  2. Magnification: Test out what the emoji or emoticons looks like when magnified to 200%. 
  3. Frequency: Use emojis or emoticons occasionally for emphasis, rather than relying on the icons to communicate a large percentage of the message. 
  4. Alternative Text: Check to ensure there is alt text. Add alt text if possible. If not, add a note within the body of the content to describe the emoji or emoticons.
  5. Color Contrast: If the emoticon or emoji is used in place of text, select ones that have good color contrast.
  6. Familiar Symbols: Use common symbols to make it more likely that the symbols will work correctly on readers’ devices and improve the chance that they will be familiar with their meaning.

Emojis May Impact People’s Reading Experiences

The /mnit/government/policies/accessibility/index.jspState of Minnesota Accessibility Standard applies to social media channels and other types of communications that may have the ability to use emojis and emoticons. Planning digital accessibility into communications means considering the impact of design choices on accessibility, and testing to ensure results are accessible. If emojis and emoticons are designed into communication, it is important to consider how they may impact the understanding of that message. Considerations include characteristics of an emoji such as animation or contrast, as well as the need to think about how emojis are understood across devices or by a variety of audiences. 

Varying Interpretations

There is a significant potential for miscommunication while using emojis based on the varying types of emojis across platforms and devices. Those reading the emoticons and emojis may not have the same interpretation of the symbol as the person using it in their communication. Also, a sender’s device may visualize the same emoji in a different way than the receiver’s device. 

Consider differences between the emoticon :( and the emoji ☹️ (sad face):

  • Some may list that emoticon as a frown.
  • The emoji’s alt text in Microsoft Word says “Sad face with no fill.”

For those with cognitive disabilities, emoticons and emoji may make it more difficult to understand your message and lead to varying interpretations of what you are trying to communicate. If the emoticon is sideways, some people may be unable to decode the emotion. Even if it is upright, the symbol may be unfamiliar and cause confusion or a misunderstanding of the message, especially when the meanings are non-literal. You may use an avocado to reference healthy eating, but this may not be understood by all your readers. A smiley face may come through on your device or application, but your reader may only get the letter j. They may not realize you had entered a symbol that did not get communicated to them.

Characteristics of Emojis and Emoticons

While it may be entertaining for some, animated emojis can cause a significant problem for other users. Take a moment and watch one of the emojis used in a message you received – do the eyes keep moving? Without the ability to pause or to choose not to receive these moving symbols, some may have difficulty focusing on your message, the messages around it (in applications with long threads), or may experience other issues because they cannot control the movement.

Veronica Lewis discusses how a person with low vision may chose specific emojis based on background color in, “How Do people with Vision Impairments…Use Emoji?” Remember, your readers may be using magnification/zoom, they may have a different color scheme on their computer like high contrast mode, or they may be using assistive technology to read them the information in your message.

Screen Reader Experience

Lewis also provides insight into the challenges emojis may cause when using a screen reader. She writes, "If my friend sends me five cake emojis, the screen reader will read ‘cake cake cake cake cake.’" Emoticons and emojis can be a part of your communications, as long as you think about accessibility as you craft your message.

For the Techies

According to the Technique H86 from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1 information on providing text alternatives for ASCII art, emoticons, and leetspeak emoticons, “include ASCII characters that form facial expressions and other ways to communicate an emotion.” They recommend ensuring there is a text alternative for emoticons, and provide examples. 

Lastly, start your search for Unicode blocks of emojis on Wikipedia.

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