Is automating your accessibility testing actually providing false positives?

Computer says yes. But is automating your accessibility testing actually providing false positives?

By Hussein Alhammad.

A lot of good comes out of automating tasks. When it comes to the accessibility of HTML emails, if it’s a core part of your team’s workflow, automated testing is going to help you get a lot of big easy wins consistently.

So far so good. But be warned. It’s all too easy to fall into the scorecard trap and make it your team’s goal to blindly do what is needed to simply pass the tests. This not where the work stops. Automated accessibility testing is unlikely to fully inform you on the accessibility of your HTML emails. In fact, you can “fake” an accessible HTML email.

Alternative (Alt) text

One of the most common ‘best practices’ is adding alt text to non-decorative images or an empty string for decorative images.

However, many automated accessibility testing tools are unable to distinguish between decorative and non-decorative images. An empty string can be added to all non-decorative images in an email, and it is likely to pass the test. That’s means image descriptions deemed crucial to understanding the content of the email could be blank and it would still be deemed accessible.

Most tools don’t check the actual content either. A common issue is leaving placeholder text in place of the alt text of images. These emails are likely to pass the automated test too! Users who have images turned off as default will experience this on a regular basis. Descriptive text that has literally nothing to do with the image they replace.

Interactive emails and keyboard accessibility

Interactivity in email is hot right now. There are lots of cool examples that push the boundaries of what HTML is capable off. But the one thing most of these emails unfortunately share is their poor accessibility.

Email developers work around the limited support of web features in email clients by (cleverly) building interactive experiences with features that were not designed for such UI components – at least not on their own. As a result, most of the cool interactive experiences are only usable to a small subset of users – those using specific devices and email clients.

Many people think accessibility is only relevant for blind or partially-sighted users. But, it’s worth highlighting that it’s an issue sighted users face too, such as those who prefer (or need) to use a keyboard for navigation.


Flourish works with companies who have global audiences, and we know firsthand how some audiences are unique in terms of their requirements. With an office in Dubai we know that a large number of the city’s population may speak very little of the country’s native and/or official languages. This is when translatability becomes a real accessibility concern.

Email clients and browsers provide built-in translation software. However, current automated testing tools do not flag if an HTML email has pieces of content that cannot be translated, such as text embedded images. But there are other widely used techniques that produce untranslatable content.

One example is breaking a date like “16 May” with some invisible special characters to prevent email clients from auto-linking the date. Depending on what special characters are used, the translation software may be unable to correctly translate the date.

Another common example is using Microsoft’s proprietary vector language (VML) to draw shapes. This is mostly used to build call-to-action buttons and it is only rendered on the Outlook on Windows desktop app. Yet even Outlook’s own built-in translator fails to translate text inside VML shapes.

Why is this topic so important to us? We pride ourselves on making sure that the emails we produce can be consumed by as many people as possible, and that those people enjoy the same experience as everybody else. Making our emails genuinely accessible means we can help the brands we work with build meaningful relationships with more people.


If you’d like to find out more about making your emails truly accessible get in touch with Flourish. Or if you have a question drop Hussein a line directly, he’ll be happy to help.


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