If you participate in social media, you have surely seen at least a few Wordle share grids over the past month or so. The five-letter word guessing game has taken the internet by storm and kept users hungry by releasing only one puzzle each day. In fact, it became so popular that it was quickly bought up by the New York Times for a low-7 figure sum. Wordle also makes for an interesting case study on digital accessibility; it’s not just a typical website with typical best practices to apply, but raises novel questions that force us to think just a bit more empathetically.
Challenges getting started for keyboard users
While a full audit of the game is beyond the scope of this post, we quickly ran into a number of problems while trying to play Wordle using assistive technologies. For starters, when you first load Wordle, there is a popup that loads by default with a quick visual description of the game’s rules and interface. For users limited to keyboard navigation, it is not possible to close this popup and start the game.
When a screen reader is activated, this situation is slightly improved. If you make your way element-by-element through the entire page, eventually you can finally reach the popup contents to have them announced and then close the modal popup when you are done. But before you get there, you have to tab through items behind the popup, which can be quite confusing. Ideally when a popup like this is active, the user’s focus should be trapped within the popup until it is manually closed.
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Perceiving colors in a color-based game
In Wordle, users guess a five letter word and receive feedback in the form of colored blocks corresponding to each letter position in the word. Letters that are in that day’s word but in the wrong spot are colored yellow while letters in the correct spot are green. Letters that are not in the word at all are colored grey. As a further aid, any colored letters appear in an on-screen keyboard as a memory aid when making your next choices.
Using colors as the only way of conveying information makes it difficult for visually impaired or color blind users to perceive how they are doing. It would be better if it were possible to enable other ways of knowing whether how correct a guess was. For example, the game could make use of a symbol above the letter to indicate whether a letter guess was present in the word or in the correct position.
Furthermore, for blind users who depend on screen readers, this information is not semantically encoded at all. That means that when the word guess input is announced, there is no way to hear whether any of the letters guessed are correct. The same applies to the on-screen keyboard colors. No further information per letter is announced that gives any clue as to whether the letter should be reused in future guesses.
Color contrast failures
Even setting aside these issues with the color-based interface, it is worth noting that both the yellow and green shades chosen for the game do not have high enough contrast to be easily visible against a white background. Nor are they high enough contrast to be easily distinguished from each other. To Wordle’s credit, there is a high contrast mode that uses other colors, but even that palette does not pass the 3:1 minimum ratio for non-text element color contrast (let alone the 4.5:1 ratio for text contrast).
Sharing scores is also inaccessible
As of this post’s publication, Wordle has released just over 250 games (at a rate one one per day). But the killer app feature that has made the game go viral is its emoji sharing grid. After completing a round, users can share a grid with colored green and yellow squares to brag about how many guesses they needed and which letters they got right on each guess. It’s visually compelling, shares a lot of information at a glance, and most importantly, by hiding the actual letters it contains no spoilers. But by sharing all of its information as colors, it runs into all of the same problems we have listed above.
For screen reader users, encountering these share grids can be even more frustrating. The screen reader faithfully announces the color of each box in the grid, but the actual information you are trying to convey is missing. Furthermore, reading through up to 30 emoji in succession can take close to a minute. (And reading at high speed can be even harder to follow.)
While Wordle itself is not yet accessible, as an individual player you do have options to share scores in a more accessible manner. Consider taking a screenshot and adding alt text when you share on social media so that colorblind, visually impaired and blind friends and followers can easily understand what you’re posting. You can also take advantage of the Wordle Accessibility sharing tool (available at wa11y.co) to auto-generate accessible text descriptions that you can use in addition to (or instead of) the typical emoji sharing grid.
We hope “the Times is on it”
Wordle started out as a fun side project and the creator likely never anticipated that it would become so popular. So it is understandable that accessibility may not have been top of mind when coding the game. Since the game code was released publicly as an open source project, many parodies, multilingual versions, and other fun variations on the Wordle concept have sprouted up. The New York Times moved the game over to its own website just this month and we hope that they will invest in making the game more accessible and sharing the code updates publicly to the entire Wordle ecosystem.