Happy World Emoji Day. Hi 👋 I'm Christopher, a Senior Accessibility Consultant in Defra. We all ❤ emojis. They're fun, colourful, and help us express what we can't put into words. They're a universal language of their own which everyone understands. Or are they? 🤔
Our team helps ensure the services Defra offers to the public can be used by everyone, including people who are 👩🦯, 🧏, or who’s 🧠 works differently. We’re here to remove barriers that get in the way; might your fun emoji-filled posts be a barrier? 🚧
Let’s tell a story
Before ❤ was introduced in 2015 people might type <3 which kind of looks a bit like a heart. Then someone thought Unicode character x2764 exists, what if I automatically swap <3 with ❤ and make it red, then people will be able to have a cute red heart! Which works well if you can see it. Unicode character x2764 is called “Heavy Black Heart” (heavy because it’s bold, black because it’s solid) a name that makes sense to someone who is a font nerd, but “heavy black heart” doesn’t sound cute or lovely, it sounds sad.
Now an excited parent writes how proud they are of their child winning a race at sports day and ends it with a cute red heart, and their blind friend is confused why they are sad 😢
But how many people does this impact? Over 11 million people in the UK live with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability, nearly 2 million are blind or partially sighted and might use technology that allows them to navigate the visual world of computers, known as a Screen Reader.
Software like this relies on the names of emojis to know what to read out to the user, and it’s not just people who are blind, many people with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions use software that reads blog posts like this out too. You might too if you have a digital assistant that talks to you and lets you know about new messages.
Knowing the name of an emoji is important, and it’s not just the classic Unicode characters, all emojis have names. Some are obvious and short like 🦥 aka “sloth”, but some are quite long like 🙂 aka “slightly smiling face” or 🍃 aka “Leaf Fluttering in Wind”.
This is great for screen reader users because they will hear the name of the emoji and hopefully get a good understanding of what you are trying to convey. But it can become confusing if the name of the emoji doesn’t match your use. Some emojis are ambiguous or cultural, for example 😪 can be used to convey sadness, but it’s not! It’s a sleepy face! The tear is not a tear, it’s a snot bubble, something commonly used in anime and manga to show a character is tired or sleeping. Emojipedia is a great place to check the names of emojis.
The long names can also get in the way, especially if the same emoji is used often, or to fake a bullet list. A post with a list of successes all starting with ✅ might look good, but it will sound horrible when every line starts “Check Mark Button”. Now imagine how those posts with 👏 (clapping hands) between every word sound!
What you can do about it
So, how can you use emojis to add fun and emotion to your posts and include as many people as possible? (See if you can spot where I’ve got things wrong in this blog post❗)
- Use emojis to express emotion, not to convey information
- Use words, don’t substitute them for emojis that might have different names or meanings
- Add emojis at the end of sentences where they will not break the flow of information
- Use emojis sparingly, don’t repeat the same emoji or use a combination of several for emphasis
- Consider how it will look in dark and light mode, ⚫ (black circle) might look great on your screen but be invisible on others
- Check how it looks on different platforms, and that it doesn’t have any alternative meanings you might want to avoid - Emojipedia is good for this too
- Emojis used well are much better than the old “less than three” and so much better than the ones made with complex characters like ಥ_ಥ