Screenshot of a Word document showing a picture of a kangaroo and the automatic Alt Text that does not mention the kangaroonot

In later versions of Word, Microsoft uses some form of artificial intelligence (AI) to determine what is depicted in an image you insert into your document. The point of Alt text (alternative text) is to describe what’s in the image to those (perhaps with some form of vision impairment) ‘reading’ the document using a screen reader or other text-to-speech software. (Aside: Office 365 has ‘Read Aloud’ software built in to Word, PowerPoint, and Excel—in Word for Windows, it’s on the Review tab)

The problem? This AI is certainly not very intelligent, nor foolproof. As an example, I inserted an art quilt I made of a kangaroo hopping through a bushfire-ravaged area. Word labelled it as “A picture containing grass, sunset, painting, painted” (enlarge the screenshot below to see this wording). Nope, no grass. Yes, you could mistake the bushfire colours for a sunset, and yes, the stylised image could have been painted not stitched. No mention of the tree trunks or the kangaroo, though I would imagine the silhouette of the kangaroo is familiar to most. The other problem is that the auto-generated Alt Text isn’t just in Word, but saves into the PDF if you create a PDF from the document.

Screenshot of a Word document showing a picture of a kangaroo and the automatic Alt Text that does not mention the kangaroonot

Automatic Alt Text does not reflect what’s actually in the picture

So how do you change the Alt Text content that Word’s AI wants to insert for you?

  1. Select the image in the document. This will display the Picture Tools ribbon and the Format tab for that ribbon.
  2. Click Alt Text on the Format tab.
  3. Check the automatic Alt Text that Word’s AI has written for you and change it.
  4. Delete the ‘Description automatically generated’ line.
  5. Repeat the above steps for all other images in the document. (See below for how to jump from one image to the next without scrolling.)
  6. Save your changes.

I couldn’t see any way to jump from one image to the next from within the Alt Text pane, but there’s another way you can do it:

  1. Click Ctrl+f to open the Navigation pane.
  2. Click the drop-down arrow next to the magnifying glass icon in the search box.
  3. Select Graphics.
    Screenshot showing Navigation pane drop-dwon arrow with Graphics option highlighted
  4. Click the next or previous arrow keys to jump from one graphic to the next.
    Screenshot showing the next and previous arrow icons fro jumping to the next or previous graphic in the document

Finally, to show WHY you really need to manage the Alt Text yourself and NOT rely on AI to figure it out for you, here are some images of rock formations (some with pens or pencils to show scale) a geologist client sent me that shows how they were ‘interpreted’ by Word. The images are from a PDF created from the Word document. Note how the last two images are almost the same, yet are treated very differently by Word’s AI. Only one image mentions that it might be a rock! By the way, the document was on geology, so if Word’s AI was looking for context for these images, it only needed to scan the words in the document to realise these images were probably of rocks. Based on these images, I think AI has a LONG way to go…




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