An Accessible Pagination Pattern

Pagination is a basic building block of the web, appearing practically everywhere content is displayed. From a UI perspective, a pagination widget generally ends up being presented in a very straightforward manner as a horizontal list of links, framed by “previous” and “next” links to give the user clear calls to action. Flickr and CNN provide good examples of this general pattern:

Pagination widgets on Flickr and CNN

Flickr marks this up as a flat series of a tags inside a div, CNN as a ul, containing one li for each page. And those certainly aren’t the only options: while doing a bit of research for a project at work, I came across a much wider than expected variety of markup, and no clear “best practice.”

After thinking about it a bit, and grilling my more intelligent friends, I’ve settled on a pattern that I think works pretty well. It’s nothing at all groundbreaking, but is certainly worth documenting as a markup pattern I’d advocate. The HTML is straightforward (and an example is available):

<p id="paginglabel" class="audible">Pagination</p>
<ul role="navigation" aria-labelledby="paginglabel">
    <li><a href="#"><span class="audible">%TYPE% Page</span>1</a></li>
    <li><a href="#" rel="prev"><span class="prev">Previous<span class="audible">: %TYPE% Page</span></span>2</a></li>
    <li><p><span class="audible">You're currently reading %TYPE% page </span>3</p></li>
    <li><a href="#" rel="next"><span class="next">Next<span class="audible">: %TYPE% Page</span></span>4</a></li>
    <li><a href="#"><span class="audible">%TYPE% Page </span>5</a></li>

I see a few advantages to this markup:

  1. Clear signposting

    The widget uses the aria-labelledby attribute to instruct capable browsers to use the contents of the preceding paragraph as a label, and the role attribute to demarcate the ul as a navigation landmark on the page.

    These are especially important for visitors making use of screenreaders or other assistive technologies, as they typically have the option of navigating through a page’s content by jumping directly from one list to the next, or from one landmark to the next. In such a scenario, the label and role will be announced before reading the contents of the list, providing essential information about its context and purpose which would otherwise be lacking.

    Likewise, the previous and next pages are given rel attributes, making their relationship to the current page crystal clear, and available to any capable parser.

  2. Clear link text

    A link containing only the text “1” is more or less useless to a visitor who can’t visually link the text to it’s context. Adding that context is simply done, however, by placing some additional text inside the link. An addition as trivial as “Page 1” makes a huge difference in comprehension. This text can be hidden for sighted users by wrapping it in a span, and positioning it offscreen via CSS. The current page is called out in the same way, providing the visitor with additional context.

  3. Deduplication

    CNN and Flickr made the same choice when marking up the widget’s “Previous” and “Next” links. Even though these both link off to items which are also available in the list, the link has been duplicated, breaking the relationship between the visible page number, and the textual label. I’d argue that it’s better to group the two into the same a element, using one link for both elements.

    The markup above does just that, placing the textual labels inside the link element itself, making it clear that the previous page is page 2. The presentation of the “previous” and “next” links to the left and right of the list, respectively, can be handled by positioning their containing spans absolutely. This requires approximate knowledge of the text’s size, and can usually be accommodated even in multi-language environments.

  4. Sound over Semantics

    For pagination, it seems like it would make perfect sense to use an ordered list rather than the unordered list I’ve chosen here. It’s almost certainly semantically correct, as the list of pages is indeed ordered, and that order is indeed meaningful.

    In this case, however, I think it’s the wrong choice. NVDA (which is the only screen reader I have access to at the moment) reads ordered lists as “One. [List item content] Two. [List item content] …” An unordered list, on the other hand, doesn’t number the items as they’re read. Since I’m explicitly including the page number in the link, an ol simply sounds strange and repetitive: “One. Example Page one. Link. Two. Example page two. Link. …” Assuming other readers like Jaws and WindowEyes behave similarly, an unordered list simply sounds better.

    (Thanks to Gareth for the good question that I’d neglected to address.)

I’ve put together a quick example of this markup at work. I hope you reach for it next time you need a pagination widget.