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An Intro to Email Accessibility with Mark Robbins

We can list a million reasons why email accessibility matters, like how it improves your ROI, works as a competitive advantage, etc.

But at the crux of it all, the real reason behind why accessibility is essential is because it’s the right thing to do. Because content should be for everyone to consume, enjoy and benefit from, not just a portion of your email list. Everyone deserves to feel included.

To discuss this inclusion and how you can start your email accessibility journey, we reached out to Mark Robbins, admin of the Email Markup Consortium. He also has a personal website called Good Email Code, which provides sharable code for designing accessible emails and more.

Clearly, the right guy to go to when talking about accessibility. So without further ado, let’s dive into the interview.

1. Let’s start from the very beginning - how would you describe email accessibility?

I think of email accessibility as the idea that people should be able to consume the content of the emails you send, fully understand that content, and perform an action, such as clicking a link or sending a reply, without any issues. This includes any people who may have some sort of disability or limitation.

2. Why do you think it’s important for email marketers to focus on accessibility?

There are many reasons, but I’ll try and keep it short. If you are not allowing people to access your emails, you’re discriminating against them. That’s not cool.

Also, most countries have laws against that. If people can’t access your emails, they are unlikely to covert on your emails, so you are losing out on opportunities.

3. What made you get into designing accessible emails? Was there an “aha” moment or last straw that made you think, “Time to take matters into my own hands?”

Absolutely. I had just presented a talk about interactive emails at the 2015 Front Trends conference in Warsaw. The talk went down really well, and I felt pretty great about it.

Later that day Léonie Watson (W3C WebApps WG co-chair) did an amazing talk on accessibility and showed how she uses a screen reader to use her computer. As that talk continued, I realized more and more how little I knew about accessibility and how bad the accessibility was in the code I had just shown.

I had a drink with Léonie that evening, and she gave me some great tips. Then as soon as I got back to work, I started fixing things, and I’ve been digging deeper into accessibility ever since.

Before that moment, I was obsessed with getting emails to work everywhere (in all email clients). Since that moment, I’ve been obsessed with getting emails to work everywhere (in all email clients, for all users, with any assistive technology).

4. Is accessibility still an up-and-coming thing, or do you think most companies have gotten the hang of sending accessible emails?

In terms of conversations around accessibility, I think we’ve come a long way. There are a lot of blog posts and talks about accessibility in email these days. Back in 2015, when I started looking at accessibility, there was pretty much nothing about email accessibility.

But in practice, we still have a very long way to go. It’s still tough to find an example of an accessible email. Most of the emails I look at are still full of bugs.

5. What are some absolute no-no’s when designing emails around accessibility?

I love breaking the rules and pushing boundaries, so it’s hard for me to say no to anything. However, one of the few things I’d say you can’t do is ignore accessibility. It needs to be considered in every decision you make about email copy, design, code, etc.

You can still go wild with your ideas and creativity, but you can never forget about respecting your users, their accessibility needs, and their user preferences.

6. What’s the most common mistake you see that makes emails inaccessible for many?

Missing language and direction settings. These are very small bits of code but have a huge impact. If you only send in one language, you can hard-code the language and direction in your default template and forget about them.

If you are sending in multiple languages, it’s a little more complicated. But most likely, you already have a system in place that controls which language goes where. So a small addition of adding language and direction attributes to that would fix this issue.

7. For a beginner looking to create accessible emails, how do they start, and what small changes can they make?

Accessibility is a huge area, which can be daunting, but you can chip away at it piece by piece. Minor improvements are always welcome.

One of the best first steps is to use some automated accessibility testing as part of your QA (Quality Assurance) process, such as the free Parcel accessibility checker. You don’t have to fix everything on day one, but you can note all the issues flagged up and deal with them one at a time.

If you can, spend some time on each issue and understand why it’s an issue and who it’s an issue for. I’ve found this really helps better empathize with the users and pre-empt problems before they arise.

8. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about designing interactive emails. Does interactivity affect accessibility in any way, good or bad?

Yes, it’s very hard to make interactive emails accessible.

Interactive emails use radio buttons and checkboxes to change the code based on the reader’s inputs. Such interactive elements can be used to change images in a photo gallery or expand and collapse things in an accordion.

Radio buttons and checkboxes are ugly, so most people will set those to “display: none” and style their own controls. This breaks accessibility. When they are set to “display: none,” you can’t focus on or click the inputs when using a keyboard, screen reader, or several other input types.

However, you can style these inputs so that they don’t appear on the screen but are still visible to assistive technology.

The next issue is managing states. Visually, we might see a change when something is clicked, but we need to also think about ways to communicate that change to someone using a screen reader. They need to know something has changed when they click, and they need to know what that change is.

9. What are your thoughts on Dark Mode? Does it hinder accessibility in any way?

Light and dark modes both have pros and cons when it comes to accessibility.

The important thing is giving the user a choice. Things get tricky when email clients force a color scheme without allowing the sender to support it. That often leads to issues. But where it’s supported, we should always be offering the choice.

10. Are there any particular fonts or email layout styles you’d suggest marketers should use to improve accessibility?

Keeping layouts simple is always the safest option. You can do some more elaborate, creative layouts too, but make sure you keep accessibility in mind.

One common mistake is having the code’s content order differ from the content order on the screen. This can get confusing when using something like keyboard navigation or a screen reader, as it will appear to jump around the page.

As far as the best fonts for email go, try to avoid cursive fonts as they are harder to read. Serif and sans-serif fonts both have pros and cons, so neither is perfect, but either is good enough to use.

11. Lastly, what is one email marketing pet peeve you can’t stand?

Assuming something is good or even better just because it’s commonplace or because a large, well-known brand does it. This is true for so many areas of email marketing.

Regarding accessibility, I often get questions from people starting out along the lines of, “I thought we needed to do X to make things accessible, but company Y doesn’t do that.” That’s because they have bad accessibility. Trust yourself. If you think something might not be accessible, it probably isn’t.

Email Templates That Convert Crazy Good

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Wrapping Up

We hope this interview helped you better understand the world of email accessibility and why it is not something to be ignored. Designing accessible emails is not only the right and considerate thing to do for your customers but is also a business advantage as it means more people read your emails.

That’s all for this interview. Who should we interview next?


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