It’s important to remember that people read emails in different ways. And use different devices to do so. Some people might use a screen reader, while others might use magnification.

Even if you know the person you’re sending it to does not have access needs. You never know who your email will be forwarded to! When your emails are accessible, everyone has access to the information in them.

Here are some best practice tips to make your emails more inclusive. Most of this guidance focuses on screen reader accessibility. But, as with most accessibility best practices, they benefit several users.

Make the subject line relevant

Let’s start with the sender and subject line. For screen reader users, this is the first thing we ‘hear’ before getting to the body of the email.

Making the subject line relevant to the email content means we get a better picture of what the email is about. And whether we want to invest time in reading it.

Of course, this is good practice anyway. It makes it easier for both the sender and receiver to search their inbox and find the information they need.

Use heading styles

Use heading styles as you would for web page content and documents.

Headings are really important for screenreader accessibility. Especially in long emails that contain a lot of information.

Headings help screen reader users navigate to different information within the body of the email. Some screen reader users exclusively use headings and links to jump to the part of the email that’s relevant to them.

Headings help to break up the content visually as well.

For long emails, use a heading hierarchy. So heading 2 and heading 3. Having a consistent heading structure is always helpful.

How to use built-in headings and styles in Outlook (Microsoft support)

Note: the Styles pane is not available for Outlook for web (Office 365).

Use accessible font colours

Using bright font colours against a white background is another thing to be careful of.

Never use colour to convey meaning. For example, using red text to indicate spelling errors.

If you’re using colour to convey information, you might accidentally exclude several users. Like people with visual impairments, colour contrast deficiencies (colour blindness) or learning difficulties.

Depending on the colour, it can make your words harder to read too.

If you need to use colour, choose a colour combination that passes WCAG’s minimum contrast ratios.

In Outlook, use the ‘Automatic’ setting for your email text. This means the text will display well even in high contrast mode.

  1. Select your text.
  2. Select Message> Font Colour.
  3. Select Automatic.

Always ask yourself:

‘Do the colours I’m using have enough contrast?’

Then test them using a tool like the WebAIM colour contrast checker.

Check for readability

The information you share in emails is probably very important. But if it’s hard to read, your message could get lost.

It’s highly likely that the person reading your email is in a rush. They want to get the information they need quickly.

Using plain English makes it easier for the reader to get the information fast.

To start writing in plain English, avoid:

  • long sentences
  • complicated language
  • acronyms
  • abbreviations
  • corporate jargon

I’m sure at least once in your career you’ve had to search for the definition of a business term a colleague has used.

For example, using “cob” to mean “close of business,” or, the end of the day. When you use acronyms and jargon, you assume knowledge from the reader. But what if they don’t have that knowledge? What if English is their second language? You could be excluding them from important details.

Another reason to avoid acronyms is that they’re hard for screenreader users to understand. Expressions like “eod” (end of day), “fyi” (for your information) can sound like nonsense when assistive technologies read them aloud.

You can still sound authoritative and professional without the business jargon and metaphors. Using plain English makes your writing more accessible to a much wider audience.

How to improve your writing with Plain English

Use fonts that are easy to read

Choose a font that’s clear, and easy to read. The easier a font is to read, the more accessible it is.

Some fonts are easier to read than others. Sans serif fonts like Arial, Tahoma and Calibri are good standard fonts for accessibility.

Once you’ve chosen your font, make sure your text is at least size 12pt in size.

Avoid italics as it’s harder to read for people with dyslexia and other conditions to read. If you use bold to emphasise something, a screen reader will likely not pick this up. So make sure you use another indicator if you want this information to stand out. Like a sub-heading that says ‘important’, for example.

Use lists

Bulleted or numbered list styles are an effective way of sharing information. Lists break up your message into small, manageable chunks. Using lists can really improve the readability of your emails.

List styles are useful if you want to:

  • give someone a list of actions or tasks to complete
  • share a lot of information

This may sound obvious. But often people forget lists as an option. Preferring to send emails with long walls of text in them.

Formatted lists means that screen reader users can distinguish this information from the rest of the body text. They are particularly helpful for people that use assistive technology.

Add alt-text to images

Newsletters and marketing emails often contain images. But these images are not always accessible.

To make them accessible, you should add alt-text, unless they are decorative.

Alt-text provides a written description of the image which is read out by screen readers. It also benefits sighted users. Where images may not load due to a poor or slow internet connection, or because the provider disabled the images.

If using images in the body of any email, they should always have alt-text. The same goes for images in your email signatures.

How to write better alt-text descriptions for accessibility

Make link text meaningful

We often share links in emails, particularly in marketing emails such as campaigns or newsletters. When linking to resources or web pages, it’s important to make sure that people know where the link leads to.

Link text should be clear and detailed. It should give a clear idea of where it leads to. For example ‘sign our petition’ tells the reader exactly where they’ll get directed to when they click the link.

Detailed links make things much easier for everyone.

Think about how you format your emails

Look at the way in which you format your emails in detail.

Having enough spacing between lines and paragraphs makes your email easier to read.

You may need to use tables in your emails at times, but they should still be accessible. Mark up table headers so that screen reader users can understand this data.

Include a plain-text version

When sending marketing emails, you should always include a plain-text version. Many email marketing tools allow you to do this very easily. Some tools even automatically create a plain-text version for you.

Plain-text emails are much simpler. They don’t include any images, embedded links or design elements.

People that use a range of assistive technology may prefer to use the plain-text version as it includes the main content of the email.

It’s always best to offer people a choice of which version of the email they would like to receive.

Use in-built accessibility checkers in Microsoft Outlook

Before you hit send, check the accessibility of your emails using the inbuilt tools in Outlook.

Outlook even has an option for you to let others know that you would prefer content in an accessible format. This can be a good way to get other people in your organisation engaged in the need for accessibility.

Whenever you’re sending emails, for work or for personal reasons, think about accessibility.

Further resources

Make your Outlook email accessible (Microsoft Support)
Creating accessible emails (AbilityNet)
Accessibility in email marketing (Mailchimp)