How can color-blind and visually impaired users perceive system alerts and notifications?


  • Don’t rely solely on color to convey information. 
  • Enhance alerts with high-contrast text, distinct icons, and alternative shapes or patterns. 
  • Consider adding audio cues or tactile feedback. 
  • Always provide text descriptions for all visual elements to support screen readers. 
  • Ensure compliance with accessibility laws like the ADA.
  • Allow customization of color palettes. 
  • Conduct user testing with color-blind individuals.

Deep dive

To ensure that system alerts and notifications are perceivable and accessible to color-blind and visually impaired users, always follow an essential rule in your designs: don't rely on color alone to convey meaning. 

Using methods beyond color differentiation is crucial. Here are key strategies:

Incorporate clear, descriptive text and distinct icons in alerts and notifications 

Text should convey the message explicitly, and icons can provide additional information. For instance, a warning alert could include a text label like "Warning" and a universally recognized warning icon.

Screenshot of Flybox app displaying an emergency alert interface for a shooting incident with options to manage and notify about the situation.

👋 View the full case study 

Support screen readers

Ensure that your alert text is properly coded to be read by screen readers. Use ARIA live regions so that alert content is announced immediately. Don't forget to provide alternative text (alt text) for icons and images.

Ensure high contrast between text or icons and the background 

Sufficient contrast aids users with color vision deficiency and those with low vision. WCAG guidelines recommend a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. You can use a contrast checker to test contrast levels, ensuring they are suitable for colors for visually impaired users. 

Additionally, make text size adjustable to accommodate users with low vision.

Comparison of mobile app settings interface in original and achromatopsia views, showing changes in color perception.

Use different shapes and patterns 

Use different shapes or patterns in addition to color for different types of notifications. For instance, a triangle for warnings, a circle for errors, and a square for informational messages. It helps in distinguishing alerts based on shape or pattern recognition. Check out how one of Cieden's projects combines color and icons:

Comparison of layout selection options in a user interface, highlighting an inactive and an active state for accessibility testing.

👋 View the full case study 

Use subtle animations or changes in font 

Use subtle animations (like blinking or pulsing) or changes in font size or style to draw attention to critical alerts. It is beneficial in environments where color needs to catch attention, like dashboards.

Enhance with sound and haptics

In addition to visual cues, consider using distinct sounds or vibration patterns for different types of alerts. However, make sure to provide options to adjust the volume or disable these features entirely.

Provide color palette options for switching

In critical applications, offer the option to switch between different color palettes. It allows users to choose the palette that works best for their specific type of color vision deficiency. Check out how HubSpot realized this feature:

Screenshot showing HubSpot's website interface in both normal and high-contrast modes to enhance accessibility for blog navigation.

Conduct user testing with color-blind users

Conduct user testing with color-blind individuals to ensure your interface is truly accessible. This real-world testing is crucial as simulated tests might not cover all nuances of color vision deficiencies.

Use simulation tools

If user testing isn't an option, consider using tools and ICC color profiles to simulate different types of color blindness. Analyze if color shades are distinguishable and if there's any potential confusion. Just remember, these tools might not capture every nuance. 

Pro tip: Remember that color perception can vary with context. Ambient light and screen quality can change how we perceive colors. Consider providing alternative versions of designs optimized for specific contexts, such as dark mode versions for viewing in low-light environments or high-contrast versions for viewing on low-quality screens.

❓Questions designers should ask themselves

By asking the right questions, designers can question their decisions, find areas to improve, make sure nothing is overlooked, and reduce mistakes, leading to better, more thoughtful designs.

  • Have I conducted user research to understand the specific needs and challenges of color-blind and visually impaired users?
  • Are the alert and notification messages clear, concise, and free of jargon or assumed knowledge?
  • Can I enhance alerts with icons, patterns, or other visual or sound indicators beyond color alone?
  • Are my alerts properly coded for screen reader announcement and keyboard navigation?
  • What customization options would provide the most value to my users?
  • Have I tested my alert colors for sufficient contrast across different types of color vision deficiency?

⚠️ Common mistakes to avoid

Learning from your mistakes is important, but many problems can indeed be predicted and avoided. Based on Cieden's collective expertise, we're sharing the most common ones.

  • Relying solely on color to convey alert severity or type (e.g., red for errors, green for success).
  • Using vague or technical language in alert messages (e.g., "Exception processing request").
  • Forgetting to provide text alternatives for icons and images.
  • Coding alerts in a way that makes them "invisible" to assistive technologies.
  • Overusing animation or flashing effects, which can trigger seizures or migraines.

👥 How to convince stakeholders

One of the most crucial skills for a designer is being able to explain and back up their ideas. If you're having a hard time convincing stakeholders, take a look at our tips to help you communicate better.

  • Highlight the potential legal risks and costs associated with inaccessible products. In many countries, digital accessibility is mandated by law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US and EN 301 549 in the EU. Failing to comply can result in costly lawsuits and reputational damage.
  • Demonstrate how accessible alerts improve the experience for all users, not just those with disabilities. Accessibility benefits extend beyond the target audience. For example, high-contrast text improves readability in low-light conditions, while clear alert messages aid comprehension for non-native language speakers. Designing for edge cases leads to better experiences for everyone.
  • Quantify the market opportunity. According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment. By creating accessible products, we can tap into this significant market share and demonstrate our commitment to social responsibility.
  • Appeal to their sense of empathy and social responsibility. As designers, we have a moral obligation to create products that don't exclude or discriminate against people with disabilities. Inaccessible alerts can cause frustration, confusion, and even danger for users who can't perceive them properly.

🛠️ Useful tools 

These tools will make your job easier and more effective.

  • Color Blindness Simulator – understand how various types of color vision deficiencies affect perception of colors.
  • Color Blindness Accessibility Checker – visualize how color combinations affect users with various types of visual impairments. Use real-time previews, comparison tools, and compliance checks with WCAG standards.
  • Color Blind Figma plugin – preview your designs across eight different types of color vision impairments.

📚 Keep exploring 

Never stop growing. Explore resources thoughtfully handpicked by Cieden’s designers. 

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