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I'm asking as a user here (I work in QA, fwiw) - is there a standard for accessibility in terms of using text labels vs icons only in menus? I searched and found a lot of conversations about including hidden names for menu items so that screen readers could read them. But my issue is that I'm autistic and while text is meaningful for me, icons usually are not - my brain does not translate images to words the way I guess most people's do. I have managed to learn a few that are VERY familiar - the gear icon for settings, the envelope for messages. But generally if I'm in an app where there are only icons and there is no option to turn on labels, and no hover text, I will just be clicking/tapping blindly with no idea what the icons mean.

So I'm just wondering - is this a rare enough problem that it's not a consideration in accessibility discussions? Or is there a standard and these apps just aren't following it? I want to know the background before I send complaints to developers. Thanks!

ETA: I did read the discussion that's been suggested as a duplicate, but it didn't answer my question about whether there is an accessibility standard for whether to show text labels as the accessibility discussion was focused on screen readers.

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    Does this answer your question? When to use icons vs. icons with text vs. just text links?
    – Danielillo
    Aug 21, 2023 at 22:12
  • I’m wondering: When you are using web apps on desktop, are you hovering on icons to see what they mean?
    – Andy
    Aug 22, 2023 at 7:50
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    I don't think the question is a duplicate. Here is asked if accessibility guidelines exist for cognitive problems with icon-only labels, the supposed duplicate just asks which presentation is best. I believe the question is a good extension of the other one and the current answer already shows why they are different; It mentions WCAG which isn't mentioned in answers in the other one for example.
    – jazZRo
    Aug 22, 2023 at 8:42
  • @Andy Yes, I hover over icons pretty much every single time before I click an icon without a text label, unless it's a very common one (like an envelope that means "messages"). I still need to do this in apps I've been using for 5-10 years.
    – aospovat
    Aug 22, 2023 at 15:05
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    I'm not autistic and I also struggle regularly with "modern" apps which think icons without hover text are a good idea for buttons. I also resort to clicking blindly around and trying to learn what happens. Good UI should always be clear - and all icons except maybe a few very common ones should be accompanied by text (either hover/long-press).
    – Falco
    Aug 22, 2023 at 15:08

1 Answer 1

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I like the link posted in the comment section (When to use icons vs. icons with text vs. just text links?) but I wanted to specifically address the accessibility aspect since the question was tagged with that.

Accessibility can be thought about in two ways:

  1. Conformance
  2. Usability

"Conformance" is about (voluntarily) adhering to a set of guidelines, which is different from "compliance", which is about adhering to a law. They seem similar but are quite different.

Think of speed limits. If you see a yellow caution sign that the road curves up ahead and the (suggested) speed limit is 35 mph, that's a "recommended" speed limit but is not required. If you don't go 35 mph, you're not breaking a law (compliance). You might run off the road because you're driving too fast for the conditions and that could lead to other legal implications, but not going 35 is not breaking the law. If you do go 35 mph, you are "conforming" the suggestion.

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On the other hand, if there's a white regulatory sign saying the speed limit is 35 mph, then not going that speed is non-compliant.

enter image description here

So you "conform" to recommendations (yellow sign) and you "comply" with legal requirements (white sign).

I say all that because accessibility has "guidelines", which are voluntary, and it's recommended you "conform" to them but if you don't, you're not breaking any law. But like running off the road by not following the suggested speed limit of 35 mph (yellow sign) might lead to other legal issues, not following accessibility guidelines could cause other legal issues too.

Now, with all that being said, there are some guidelines for accessibility called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). It is strongly encouraged to follow them to make websites, native apps, documents, etc as accessible as possible to the greatest number of people. But there is nothing in those guidelines that address the use of icons vs text or a combination. There are guidelines that if you use an icon without text, then the meaning of that icon must be conveyed to assistive technology (such as a screen reader or speech interface)(WCAG 1.1.1 and 4.1.2).

This is all on the "conformance" side of accessibility.

The other way to think about accessibility is from the usability side. You can have a website that follows all the conformance guidelines (WCAG) but still be an unfriendly and hard to use website. That's where your question about icons vs text vs both comes into play. As mentioned, there aren't any official accessibility guidelines on which to use so at this point, you have to do some user testing. The Nielson Norman Group has some info about icons.

Personally, I like to give the option to the user. That is, design your app so that you can have just an icon or just text or both and put it in your settings and let the user choose which they'd prefer.

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    "I say all that because accessibility has "guidelines", which are voluntary, and it's recommended you "conform" to them but if you don't, you're not breaking any law." - That depends on the jurisdiction. In some locations, not meeting accessibility requirements is a violation of the law and can be met with steep financial penalties.
    – Mithical
    Aug 22, 2023 at 8:53
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    @Mithical No, it doesn't depend on any jurisdiction. WCAG is not a law. Not following it does not break any law. However, if you are looking at AODA (Canada), Section 508 (US), EN 301 549 (EU), etc where those country laws cite WCAG as the measurement for complying with that law, then absolutely yes if you don't follow that country's laws guidelines, then that's a problem. But that's not what I said. Aug 25, 2023 at 5:16
  • @slugolicious When laws incorporate portions of WCAG by reference, they are then part of the law.
    – SamB
    Nov 21, 2023 at 19:42

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