Alice’s Adventures in Alt-Text Land

Photo by Annie Spratt showing an open book of Alice in Wonderland, with an illustration of Alice in the woods

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversations?”

Suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”

Burning with curiosity, Alice ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again…

Line illustration of Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole

Welcome to Alt-Text Land. A subterranean landscape filled with pictures and text and code and mystery and grinning cats.

“Curiouser and curiouser!”

In a recent BookMachine CAMPUS course, Ken Jones of Circular Software and I explored the curious world of accessible EPUB content and the creation of alt-text for images. Alice joined us because she very much prefers her books with pictures.

“Why are we here?” asked Alice.

“Ken is running a course on EPUB accessibility and I’m talking about the joys of alt-text,” I replied as Ken, perched in a nearby tree, opened one eye and grinned.

“Sounds…curious,” said Alice, “Will it take long?”

“Not too long. I’m talking about how the focus|LOCUS method of image description deconstructs the visual and constructs the textual to create high-quality, immersive alt-text.”

On hearing this explanation Alice frowned. “Perhaps the best way to explain it is to do it.”

The Rabbit stands on his hind legs in a field of grass and flowers. He is wearing a smart, chequered jacket over a waistcoat. An umbrella is tucked under his crooked left arm. His long ears are pointed back, and his eyes are wide with concern as he looks at the time. His pocket-watch is attached to his waistcoat by a long chain.

“I think you might be right. Do you remember the beginning of your story?” I replied.

“Yes,” said Alice, “there were no pictures and then there was a rabbit, a white one, with a pocket-watch. He was in an awful hurry and I followed him. Down and down, and now here I am. In Alt-Text Land and apparently having to learn things, like I’m back in school.”

“Well, not exactly like school. For instance, teachers don’t usually perch in trees, grinning. But anyway. Now you’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole, we’re inside the book. The alt-text lives inside the book, hidden in the code behind the pictures.”

“Oh, like a wonderful secret?” asked Alice, her eyes wide.

“Yes, like a wonderful secret. And a useful one too.”

“But why do we need this alt-text?” asked Alice, looking around her.

“Alt-text is a short description of an image that explains the content of an image to the reader. It helps visually impaired readers enjoy the pictures by enabling them to listen to the description.”

“I like listening to stories too. So, the alt-text describes the pictures in my story?”

“Yes, remember the White Rabbit in the field?”

“How could I forget him?” exclaimed Alice, “He was wearing a waistcoat and a pocket-watch, and he was carrying an umbrella of all things!”

“Well, if you are a sighted reader you would know all these things too. But Mr. Carroll never mentions the umbrella in his story. The umbrella is only in the illustration by Tenniel. Details are very important.”

“Details, yes, details are important. So, tell me about this hocus-pocus thing you do.” said Alice.

“focus|LOCUS. It is a method to simplify writing image descriptions. Because describing images, especially complex ones, can be difficult.”

Alice nodded, thinking about all the pictures in her book and the adventures she had had.

“Let’s take the White Rabbit picture. If we just wanted to add a quick description of what was in the picture, we would add an alt-tag to the code in the book. It would look something like this.” I say, pointing to the alt-tag floating past us in the sunshine.

<img src="White Rabbit.jpg" alt="The White Rabbit looks at his pocket-watch."/>

“Curiouser and curiouser,” exclaimed Alice with a look of concentration on her face. “But what about his umbrella and the way he was looking at his watch?”

“For those added details and context, we would need to write a longer description and make sure that a screen reader can find the description with all of those details. We could write something like this.” I click the link beneath the image and the description unfurls before our eyes.

The Rabbit stands on his hind legs in a field of grass and flowers. He is wearing a smart, chequered jacket over a waistcoat. An umbrella is tucked under his crooked left arm. His long ears are pointed back, and his eyes are wide with concern as he looks at the time. His pocket-watch is attached to his waistcoat by a long chain.

“Oh! That’s much better!” cried Alice. “It’s like he was right here again.”

I look over to the White Rabbit, who is sitting on a nearby tree stump, and he rolls his eyes. “Yes, it is just like he is right here.” I click the link again and the description disappears.

“How charming!” exclaimed Alice, “The text appears and then vanishes again! Like magic. A wonderful madness!”

At this point Ken stretched on the bough of the tree, grinned broadly and proclaimed, “We’re all mad here.”

A green illustration of the Cheshire Cat sitting on a branch and grinning

This fairly startled Alice and she turned to Ken. “How do you do the vanishing?”

Ken smiled and pointed into the far distance. “There is a magical place called CircularFLO. I designed a way to automatically package up InDesign images along with a positional PDF. These are sent securely to the writers at textBOX, who then return the descriptions in a spreadsheet file or posted online.”

“But how do the descriptions get inside the pictures?” asked Alice.

“That’s the circular and flowing magic part,” grinned Ken and vanished.

“I’m starting to like this accessibility idea,” said Alice. “It makes things fairer for everyone.”

“Yes, it’s a very visual world now. It would be a shame to miss anything.”

“I wouldn’t want to miss a thing,” said Alice. “Thank you for explaining a little about what you do. Would you like to join me on the rest of my adventure?”

“I would love to. But I must admit I’m not very good at croquet, so I may lose my head…”

Green icons of the four aces: spade, heart, diamond, club

To explore more magic from Circular Software, please visit the following:

Video clip of dozens of textBOX descriptions dropping into InDesign with CircularFLO:

Video clip of extended image descriptions and alt-text in various ebook readers:

To learn more about textBOX and writing image descriptions visit our website:

Huw Alexander is Managing Director at textBOX. Huw has worked in the publishing industry for over 20 years. His passion for promoting accessibility has developed over the last decade through listening to the stories and issues of users and content providers.
Huw is a member of the Publishers Association Accessibility Action Group and a regular conference speaker + writer on image description + accessibility issues. 
He now describes things for a living.
Follow Huw on Twitter at @huwalexander.