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Emojis

Last updated: 8 April, 2020

Following this helps people with:

  • time-pressures: not having to guess what emojis mean saves time

  • stress: confusing content can increase stress levels

  • multi-tasking: if meaning is clear this is easier to do 

  • cognitive impairments: trying to work out meaning increases cognitive load

  • sight loss: be aware of emoji alt text and contrast levels

  • autism: emphasing the feeling you want to express may be helpful


Guidelines

In a face to face conversation you communicate with tone and body language, as well as words, to help express what you mean. Emojis are small, digital expressions that can be used to represent many things, including objects, people, actions, ideas. They can:

  • support meaning

  • add feeling

  • be fun to use

Emojis are a recognised aspect of digital language, and can be hard to completely avoid in informal communications. Make sure your use of them is readable and accessible.

1. Never use emojis to replace words.

2. Do not use emojis as the only way to express an emotion you intend to communicate.

3. Use popular emojis that are widely recognised.

4. Use emojis that translate well across devices.

5. Put emojis at the end of sentences, and do not use repeated or too many emojis.

6. Use emojis, not emoticons.

7. Avoid emojis that are not visible in both dark and light mode.

1. Never use emojis to replace words.

Using emojis instead of words in a sentence will make your content inaccessible: 

  • you cannot be sure people will interpret the emoji as you intended, 

  • emoji alt text descriptions used by screen reading and text to speech software may not be what you intended the emoji to represent,

  • it increases cognitive load for everyone, 

  • users will not be able to scan read the content.

And never use emojis to replace letters of a word, or in the middle of words.

2. Do not use emojis as the only way to express an emotion you intend to communicate.

Adding a smiley face emoji after saying “congratulations” can emphasise that you are happy for someone. But avoid doing this as a shortcut to show meaning that may not be clear from the context given by the text. 

For example, do not use an emoji to indicate the real emotion you are expressing, if it’s not clear from the wording. This can be confusing, especially if the emoji does not display on their device. 

Emoji meaning can be understood differently across cultures. Interpretation can depend on the reader’s background, so an emoji might mean something to them that you did not intend. This would change the meaning of your message and could cause confusion.

Using popular emojis gives the best way of making sure your meaning comes across as you want it to. 

4. Use emojis that translate well across devices.

How emojis are presented depends on device and operating system. To make sure the emoji you choose will display as you intended across different devices and systems, check on unicode.org.

5. Put emojis at the end of sentences, and do not use repeated or too many emojis.

Emojis can support text to make meaning more obvious or add depth of feeling, and can be appreciated by screen reader users. But to make them accessible you need to be careful with how you use and position them.

For example, 3 claps would be read out as “clapping hands clapping hands clapping hands” which is tedious to listen to.

Remember, screen reading software will read out the alt text description of the emoji, so:

  • put emojis at the end of your sentence or message,

  • if the alt text description of an emoji does not communicate everything you wanted it to, use words to describe what you mean by the emoji,

  • avoid using a line of repeated emojis, 

  • avoid using multiple different emojis in a row as this can make it difficult for screen reader users to follow your message.

If you use a string of different emojis you’re asking a screen reader user, or any other user, to guess what you might mean by your combination. But in addition to that, there’s more cognitive effort involved when you’re hearing rather than seeing an emoji.

6. Use emojis, not emoticons.

Emojis have built-in alt text descriptions and will be parsed as text by a screen reader. Emoticons are manipulated punctuation marks and will be read out as punctuation marks.

7. Avoid emojis that are not visible in both dark and light mode.

Check how the emoji you want to use displays in dark and light mode. Contrast is important for visibility. 


Usability evidence

Emotional meaning and expression in animated faces Catherine Pelachaud, 2000

A sentiment ranking for emojis based on Sentiment of Emojis, Petra Kralj Novak, 2015

How do people with visual impairments use emoji? Veronica Lewis, 2018

Oh that's what you meant!: Reducing emoji confusion G. W. Tigwell, David R. Flatla, 2016

The bird is the word: a usability evaluation of emojis inside text passwords Tobias Seitz, Florian Mathis, Heinrich Hussmann, 2017

Are emojis predictable? Francesco Barbieri, Miguel Ballesteros, Horacio Saggion, 2017

Replacing words with emojis and its effect on reading time Viktor Gustafsson, 2017

The Semiotics of Emoji Marcel Dansi, 2017

The grammar of emoji? Constraints on communicative pictorial sequencing Neil Cohn, Jan Engelen, Joost Schilperoord, 2019

Full emoji list, v13.0 Unicode, 2020

Emojitracker Matthew Rothenberg, live tracking of Twitter emoji use

Emojipedia Emojipedia Pty Ltd


Relevant wiki content:


In this section:


We invite you to share further usability studies and academic papers in the comments section of this page.

Live discussion of usability evidence: 28 March 2020, in the page comments

Wiki page published: 8 April 2020