Adding Context to Alt Text: user centred image description

Alastair Somerville
3 min readMar 31, 2020


4 visual diagrams of how to describe images with Alt Text in differing user contexts

Microsoft Research have published a really interesting piece of user research on Alt Text image descriptions. The paper is “Person, Shoes, Tree. Is the Person Naked?” What People with Vision Impairments Want in Image Descriptions.

Describing what images represent matters for people using screen reading software. Otherwise the meaning of a web page or service gets lost in the gaps between text and visual elements.

The new research is interesting because it finally asks people with a range of visual impairments what they want from image descriptions.

This is about adding context to alt text.

Framing context

Table of what should be described by use contexts and Scene, Object and People

The above table is from the research and usefully frames how to think about user centred image descriptions.

The user intent is primary. What is the person doing? Shopping, working, dating, reading the news or checking a social network perhaps?

The second part is what is to be described. Three main themes:

  • Scene
  • Object
  • People

In what ways these are described differs.

Visualising descriptions

I have tried to visualise the research in a non-table format so as to understand differences. Here are four images.


For shopping, describing the object is crucial. Hardly any of the Scene and maybe the People if they are celebrities

Very little description of Scene but lots and lots about the Object for sale.


For news, the Scene and People need a lot of description. Objects, unless salient to story, less so.

The Scene and People are priorities.


Dating is about describing the People in detail. Light information on Scene and People

Unsurprisingly, it’s about the personal description in detail. However, some Objects and the Scene may be needed to add context.

Social Networks

Social Networking seems to require a lot of detail on everything.

It appears that everything might be relevant. Social Networking covers a lot of possible subjects and contexts.

What might work better?

This is all just a quick attempt on visualising information from the Microsoft research.

‘I am not a designer’ and it would be interesting to see better ways of making the information better known.

This research is important as it is based on identified user needs.

Adding context to alt text matters to accessibility.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX