Adding Context to Alt Text: user centred image description

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

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.


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


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.




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

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

5 tips for building better user personas

You get what you measure — how tool and method selection affect the workshop outcomes

.eps Editor For Mac

Better Hiking in Burnet

Museum Rankings based on Visitors Sentiment

Julie Fisher of fc Studio: 5 Things You Can Do To Help Your Living Space Spark More Joy

How to Make Design Systems Work

Product ecosystem for holiday marketplace, !!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alastair Somerville

Alastair Somerville

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

More from Medium

Nudge & Choice Architecture for Product Design

Operation: Design System

Usability Testing: Ensuring the Quality of Your Software Product From a User’s Perspective

User Profiles and Usage Scenarios