Headings: Who needs ’em?

This is a story about web page headings and sub-headings: A story that tries to look beyond the absurd distinctions that are sometimes made about the usability and accessibility of web content, to ask who needs headings and why.

Imagine, if you will, a web page containing a 5,000 word article; a large slab of text with many sentences and paragraphs.  Most, if not all, people will find this article easier to read if it is broken up into sections, each identified with an appropriate heading or sub-heading, and for people with disabilities it can be especially important. This is the starting point for our discussion of web content usability and accessibility.

WCAG 2.0 – usability and accessibility

The launch of the first Mosaic browser in 1993 could be considered the beginning of the mass consumption, commercial web as we know it today. The release of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) six years later in 1999, highlighted the importance of making sure this fantastic new communication medium was accessible to all, as encapsulated in this oft quoted comment by W3C Director Tim Berners Lee, “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Version 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) was released at the end of 2008. Two guiding principles during the development of WCAG 2.0 were the need to have guidelines that could be applied to different web technologies, and the need for rules (Success Criteria) that could be reliably tested by machines and/or human evaluators with relative ease.  This desire for a more accurate system of compliance testing meant that the inevitable blurring of the boundary between usability and accessibility was avoided as far as possible when framing WCAG 2.0. “There are many general usability guidelines that make content more usable by all people, including those with disabilities. However, in WCAG 2.0, we only include those guidelines that address problems particular to people with disabilities.” [Understanding the Four Principles of Accessibility]

WCAG 2.0 has three levels of conformance for Success Criteria; ‘A’, ‘AA’ or ‘AAA’, and at least all level ‘A’ success criteria must be complied with before a site can claim conformance with WCAG 2.0. Many governments and organisations concerned with the accessibility of web content now use WCAG 2.0 as the benchmark, requiring all sites under their jurisdiction to conform at a specific level, for example, the Australian Human Rights Commission advocates sites “comply with WCAG 2.0 to a minimum of AA-Level conformance”.

Unfortunately, in the push for accessibility purity by WCAG 2.0, most issues with a taint of usability were pushed into Level AAA, and even the W3C advises, “It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content”. [WCAG 2.0 Conformance Requirements]

(It should be noted, WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria levels are not direct equivalents to the WCAG 1.0 Priority levels.)

Headings and WCAG 2.0

When it comes to our imagined 5,000 slab of words, there are, as far as I can see, three success criteria that relate directly to use of headings and sub-headings:

1.3.1 Info and Relationships: Information, structure, and relationships conveyed through presentation can be programmatically determined or are available in text. (Level A)

2.4.6 Headings and Labels: Headings and labels describe topic or purpose. (Level AA)

2.4.10 Section Headings: Section headings are used to organize the content. (Level AAA)

The usability of a 5,000 word article for all web users is likely be improved by presenting the information in a number of sections each identified with a heading. Furthermore, the article content will be more accessible to people with a range of disabilities, including some with cognitive and/or learning difficulties as well as people who rely on screen readers to access the web. However, the basic requirement to organise web content into sections is at Level AAA, and so failing to break up our large slab of text with headings would not, in itself, result in a failure to comply with the WCAG Level A or Level AA requirements of most jurisdictions.

What happens at the other end of the compliance spectrum also appears to be interesting in an absurd sort of way. It seems to me that it is possible to comply at Level A with meaningless headings and sub-headings, so long as they use the correct HTML heading mark-up.

What! You might shriek. Well, let me explain. Say our 5,000 word article is presented in sections, each identified with generic heading text that literally uses some meaningless words like ‘heading’ or ‘sub-heading’, but marked up appropriately (i.e. <h1>heading</h1> … <h2>sub-heading</h2> etc). This would appear to comply at Level A (success criterion 1.3.1), since to quote Understanding WCAG 2.0, “The intent of this Success Criterion is to ensure that information and relationships that are implied by visual or auditory formatting are preserved when the presentation format changes.” [Understanding Success Criteria 1.3.1]. Or to put it another way, the information available through presentation is also being conveyed programmatically. The screen reader user, like everyone else would know, for example, that something called ‘heading’ is a main heading at H1, and at a lower level in the hierarchy there are items called ‘sub-heading’ at H2. Clearly, headings such as these would be a kind of visual pollution and meaningless to everyone, but the requirement for headings to actually describe a topic or purpose is at Level AA.

As with Goldilocks, something in the middle seems to be just right. At Level AA, headings need to be meaningful, and since a page can’t comply at AA without complying at A, this meaningfulness needs to be programmatically determinable. Meaningful headings will be easier for everyone to understand and will help those who have problems reading to locate the information they are seeking. And for screen reader users, as we should all know by now, HTML heading elements are a vital tool, since it allows them to easily identify, locate and navigate to different sections of a web document.

Of course with our 5,000 word slab of sentences and paragraphs, this middle AA path will only apply if the site author thought to include headings at all. And if they didn’t, people with cognitive disabilities and reading difficulties are likely to be among those who will suffer the most, because meeting their specific accessibility need for meaningful headings, and several other issues, is a Level AAA concern, and so easily ignored.

CSUN 2013

Roger Hudson will consider different aspects of this issue in two presentations at the CSUN 2013 International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego.

Accessibility is more than WCAG Compliance: Wednesday February 27 at 8.00 am (ouch).

The Forgotten of Web Accessibility: Wednesday February 28 at 9.20 am.


  1. This is an important topic, Roger. Thank you for writing it up!
    Most people understand that you need headings, in a “I know it when I see it” kind of way, but all too often they don’t understand how important it is to use the heading tags. I’d like a nickel for every “heading” I’ve seen that was gussied up with emphasis and font size and spacing instead of H1, H2, etc.
    While there is no success criteria for it, correct use of the basic structural tags is essential for meeting Principle 4: “Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” The structure of the content is the most important thing to preserve as your content is put through the wringer of the user agents, past, present, and future.

    • Thanks Sarah, I agree with your observation. I ind it really odd that sometimes you see sites where the developer with clearly the best intentions has used CSS to present carefully structured headings, but doesn’t use Header elements. I guess the reason is they just don’t know why old fashioned H1, H2 etc are important, for if they did I am sure most would use them.

  2. Thanks, Roger, for highlighting the importance of headings, heading markup, and their relation to WCAG. But especially for identifying yet another one of the shortcomings that exist at WCAG 2.0 Level A.
    Now, in addition to white text on a white background and no visible keyboard focus indicators (both noted by Jared Smith at http://webaim.org/blog/wcag-next/), we can add meaningless but correctly marked up headings to the list of things are compliant at Level A. Of course, meaningless headings are meaningless to everyone, so this is possibly more of a usability issue, but I’d still tend to call it a shortcoming. Do you think SC 2.4.6 should be Level A as opposed to AA?
    As you indicate, WCAG 2.0 is not perfect, and articles like this support an approach to accessibility that goes beyond simple WCAG compliance. Still, as far as compliance goes, I admit to being a fan of WCAG 2.0, but in a Goldilocks kind of way: it’s at least gotta be AA.

    • Thanks Jason. Frankly speaking I am not too sure what SC 2.4.6 really contributes to the cause of accessibility. I know it is not possible to go back and change WCAG 2.0, but if we could, I think a re-drafted 2.4.10 at Level A would be more effective when it comes to headings, and incorporate the need to provide good labels into 3.3.2. Like you, I am a fan of WCAG 2 and use it everyday – but will bring Level AAA issues into the reports I prepare on the accessibility of sites when I feel it is appropriate.

  3. Thanks for writing this up Roger. The distinction between providing headings – 1.3.1 A (even if they are rubbish), making them understandable 2.4.6 AA, and then nesting them properly 2.4.10 AAA has been really muddy for so many people. Your explanation at least provides some clarify and starts a valuable discussion.

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  5. Great article, Roger.

    Many thanks for sharing it, and I’m looking forwards to more of what you have to share at CSUN 13.

    You’ve identified yet another important deficiency of WCAG 2.0 to add to a growing number of deficiencies noted in blogs and research papers peppered all over the web.

    So, the question I have is: bearing in mind that WCAG 2.0 is often sold as the ‘universal panacea’ to accessibility issues which should wipe out all other accessibility guidelines and ways of thinking about accessibility, what are we going to do to improve WCAG 2.0 so it benefits from your useful analysis?

    I’ve discussed a number of the strengths and weaknesses of WCAG 2.0, together with a potential way to make it better, in my The future of WCAG – maximising its strengths not its weaknesses blog.

    I’d love to know what you think…


    • Thanks Jonathan for your comments and your article The future of WCAG – maximising is strenghts not its weaknesses, which has certianly generated an interesting and informed discussion.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I couldn’t agree more on the arbitrary usability / accessibility divide. The ISO definition of usability speaks of “specified users”. In other words, nothing is “just usable” for everyone, regardless of context. A full appreciation of the diversity of our user base must include people with disabilities. Conversely any user – regarldess of ability – would rather interact with systems that are fully “perceivable, understandable, operable and robust”.

    • Thanks Michelangelo. It is frustrating the way the label of usability results in some important issues that can really prevent some people from effectively accessing web content being downgraded or ignored.

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