In many articles and blog posts on web accessibility use of the
title attribute is promoted. Unfortunately this isn’t the magic bullet that many developers think it is, and I will argue for its use as a last resort.
First let’s see what the HTML 4.01 spec has to say:
This attribute offers advisory information about the element for which it is set.
Values of the
title attribute may be rendered by user agents in a variety of ways. For instance, visual browsers frequently display the
title as a “tool tip” (a short message that appears when the pointing device pauses over an object). Audio user agents may speak the
title information in a similar context. For example, setting the attribute on a link allows user agents (visual and non-visual) to tell users about the nature of the linked resource.
Sounds like it might be quite useful. The specification gives an example of its use:
<a href="http://someplace.com/neatstuff.gif" title="Me scuba diving">
me scuba diving last summer
Here we start to see the problems in the way it is used. Very often a
title attribute on an anchor repeats information that is already contained in link text. Supposing that the
title text is read by a screen reader what additional information does it provide? Little to none in this example, and unfortunately in most other examples I have seen.
Of course just because it is used badly in an example (and in most places that it is found in the wild) doesn’t prevent it being useful in other cases. What does is the way user agents deal with
title attribute values.
As the specification says
title attributes are most commonly displayed in user agents (web browsers in most cases) as tooltips, but only on hover with a pointing device and not on keyboard focus. If you are a keyboard only user with a visual user agent then it is very likely that you will not see a single
Even if you use a mouse or other pointing device there is a good chance that you will not see
title attribute content as there is no visual indication that there is content to find, so unless you are in the habit of hovering over every element on a web page just in case a
title attribute is set they will often be missed. Links are the most common place to find
title attributes, but even then a user has to hover over a link for a second or two before the tooltip appears thus limiting their discoverability.
What about for users of screen readers then? Sadly they fair no better. As Jared Smith of WebAIM said in a comment on a recent accessibility tips article
…the title attribute is VERY rarely read on links. Screen readers have an setting to read the screen text (the blue underlined text inside the link), the title attribute, or the longer of these two. The default is screen text and I’ve only very rarely seen users change this so that the title attribute is read. So, while it’s OK to use title attribute to provide additional advisory information (that’s what the HTML spec says title is for), do not rely on it for accessibility and don’t count on it ever being seen or read by a screen reader.
title attributes aren’t very useful then, but does this mean they are harmful? In my opinion they can be because they give the impression to developers that their use can make content more accessible to users and this simply isn’t the case. Often I see
title attributes being used to cover up for inadequacies in regular content, for example:
<a href="#" title="Information about XYZ">click here</a>
The issue here is that the link text does not provide sufficient information about the destination when it is not in its full context. The solution is to fix the link text, not to add a
An example of an appropriate use of the
title attribute is given in the Techniques for WCAG 2.0 document when it offers the following advice about using
title attributes on
User agents will display a tool tip when the mouse hovers above an
input element containing a
label is available, JAWS and Window-Eyes speak the
title attribute when the form control receives focus
JAWS 6.0 and later can be set to speak both
title when the two items are different; however, very few users are aware of this setting.
WindowEyes 5.5 has a hot key, ins-E, that will display additional information, including the title attribute, for the item with focus.
I have one criticism of this advice however, and that is that it doesn’t make it clear that this is a technique of last resort. In a situation where a
label cannot be accommodated by the visual design first consider the possibility that the visual design might be flawed rather than immediately use this technique. As with links
title attributes on
input elements are not displayed on keyboard focus, and only after delay on mouse hover. While for many users the layout may provide sufficient context from which to derive the purpose of an
input element add a screen magnifier to the mix for a keyboard only user and we are back to content that is obfuscated. If it is possible to accommodate a
label for each
input element in a design then do so rather than use a
In conclusion, whenever you are thinking of using a
title attribute think carefully about whether this is the right approach – more often than not you will find that by changing your content the problem, and the need to use
title, goes away. If you can find no other alternative then understand that there is no guarantee that content in a
title attribute will be available to your users.
There are a couple of comments that deserve a response.
As Jared points out the key phrase in the HTML specification is ‘advisory information’, however I think it can be difficult to determine what is advisory and what can, for some users, turn an unusable interaction in to a usable one. In my opinion the safest option is to assume that any potentially useful content is useful, and sometimes necessary, to all users and where possible to display it by default. Sometimes a tidy design which otherwise improves the user experience doesn’t allow for advisory information, in which case use of the
title attribute is a possibility, but as I say in the post it should perhaps be a last resort. The same can apply to any situation were you want to visually hide content, for example to make it available only to screen readers by positioning it off screen – it is a great technique but be sure to understand the consequences before using it.
Thierry mentioned the problems screen magnifier users can have with
title attributes. The focus of this post was how unreliably content in
title attribute values is made available to users, but he is right to point this out. The issue is that when a title attribute is displayed as a tooltip it covers, and can obscure, other content. With a screen magnifier a smaller area of the page is visible at a time, the tooltip will cover a larger proportion of the visible area than normal, and can therefore get in the way that much more.