Designing for cognitive disabilities


Published on

Presented at UX Australia 2011, Sydney, as part of the 10 minute series. This talk looks at inclusive and universal design tips for cognitive disabilities.

Published in: Design, Technology
No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide
  • I have family and friends who have a range of cognitive disabilities, including dyslexia, brain injuries, autism and Asperger Syndrome. I’ve always been curious about their experiences interacting with technology.It’s difficult to envision how to accommodate people without stopping to think about what they can do and what they do differently.The field of cognitive disabilities is rich, diverse and complex. In this 10 minute presso, we’ll be barely scratching the surface but we’ll do our best to cover a range of things to think about to help you improve the accessibility of your sites and products, while improving the usability for all. We’ll be focussing on general usability principles (i.e. The stuff you guys are already doing!), applied from the cognitive disabilities perspective.
  • The concept of cognitive disabilities is extremely broad, and not always well-defined. Anything that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information.
  • Cognitive impairment can be associated with many disabilities and disorders that can be present at birth or acquired later in life, such as dementia and stroke. The image shows a broad range of cognitive disabilities.For example, dyslexia is one of the more common disabilities that is said to affect up to 10% of the Australian population.
  • Many people hold certain stereotypes about “disability”, with the result that designing for cognitive disabilities tends to take a back step to other more visible disabilities such as vision impairment. One of the most important things to take away is that having cognitive disabilities is not a binary state – it can range greatly in severity from low to mild impairment, up to profound impairments. There are a significant amount of people who sit somewhere on this range, despite a number of people who would not normally classify their self as having a “disability”. For example, take dad who may be bad with number, or grandma who has a bad memory. Or even famous people like Richard Branson who has dyslexia. At the end of the day, accessibility is about a whole range of people, their abilities and preferences and their experiences.
  • As much as I would love to give you a set of tips that works for all disabilities, there is no one size fits all set of rules. Everyone experiences your site differently. They have different needs, preferences and ways of interacting with your site. They respond to different formats in different ways. Some may use assistive technologies, some way use low tech solutions and some may rely on your pictures to understand your content.Remember, cognitive disabilities are experienced by a very broad range of people. Accessibility features that make it easier for one user can often make things more difficult for another user. It is difficult to make definitive recommendations that will universally help ALL users with cognitive and learning disabilities.Sometimes, recommendations for one problem often seem in direct contradiction to the recommendations for others. But this does not mean that there *is* a direct conflict between the needs of people with different disabilities. It means that you need to be aware of the needs of your audience and design accordingly.
  • Talking about different needs and interaction styles, here’s a great app that helps people with cognitive disabilities who may have trouble communicating verbally. You pick a series of words, which the app and speak aloud.
  • One way at looking at designing for cognitive disabilities is to take a human factors approach. These functional groupings are proposed by the WebAIM team (great organisation – go check them out!) and is really useful for helping people understand design techniques from the user point of view, rather than the relevant technical specification. These functional groupings help provide context around the issues experienced by people with cognitive disabilities.Memory: The power of retaining and recalling past experience. Problems may include: Trying to remember how they got to content, Lack of consistent navigation is confusing Problem solving: Difficulty recognising problems, Identifying, choosing or implementing solutions,Evaluation of the outcome E.g. 404 links, misleading linksAttention: Difficulty focussing attention to the task at hand, Distractions causes difficulty E.g. Overuse of animation, multiple popup windowsMath - Difficulty withComputation,Connecting abstract math with reality Reading etc: Difficulty interpreting series of letters or numbersVisual - Difficulty processing visual information, May not recognise objects for what they are E.g. Photograph of a person
  • Let’s look at a range of usability best practices that will give you an inclusive user experience. By using usability best practices,you’ll be making great strides in making your site or application accessible by people with cognitive disabilities as well as improving access for everyone.
  • Tip #1 is about addressing memory issues, where people have issues with retaining and recalling past experiences. Problems may include trying to remember how they got to content, and where they are within a process.The key point with this tip is to keep the user’s attention focused on specific tasks. For lengthy interactive processes, such as filling in a form, or purchasing an item, aim to keep the process as short as possible.Help users keep track of their progress so that they do not get lost in the process. Use simple reminders such as Step 1 of 4. This helps the user determine what they have done so far, and what’s left to do.Consider labelling each step in the process. Rather than using “previous step” or “next step”, consider labelling the step. For example, from “next step, shipping method”.
  • Tip #2 is about problem solving. People who have difficulties with problem solving have difficulty recognising problems, identifying, choosing or implementing solutions and evaluating outcomes. With this form, the user is told what is the problem, but it’s difficult to see where the actual problem is.
  • Navigation placement, display, and functionality should not change from page to page. Users should not have to re-learn different navigation techniques for different parts of your site.Jumping from a web browser to a PDF can be a very jarring experience.
  • This tip is about attention. People with attention problems often have difficulty focussing their attention to the task at hand and can be very easily distracted by things such as popup windows and moving elements. Avoid multiple pop-up windows and blinking or moving elements, as this can pull attention away from the content.
  • Give control over movement and timed interactions
  • Maths computations or formulas can be difficult for many people to understand. This could be due to a person’s deficit math comprehension abilities or a number of cultural factors leading to dislike of maths (evident in many parts of the US).Where calculations are required, such as e-commerce sites that add the prices of items bought, GST, shipping and handling and any other, do this automatically.
  • eople with difficulty in reading, linguistic, verbal or visual comprehension have difficulty interpreting series of letters or numbers and processing visual information.Provide information in multiple formats, with a particular focus on visual formats. No one method is sufficient by itself. The more ways to convey your content, the easier it becomes to communicate to others. Video or audio alternatives provide an additional method of perceiving content. Provide text alternatives (captions and/or a transcript) for video and audio content. Closed captioning, which gives users the option to turn off the captions, is optimal.
  • People with more profound cognitive disabilities need short, simple and unambiguous phrases. In this example, the content may have contained the phrase “raining cats and dogs”. A person with linguistic difficulties may interpret this literally as raining cats and dogs. In some cases, some people will need to reply on images and other non-text aids to help them understand the content. If you’re designing content aimed at people with more severe cognitive disabilities, you may need to create a site with primary uses of images, and minimal text.
  • Don’t right justify text. This leads to variable spacing between words, which can create visual patterns of white space called “rivers of white”. These “rivers of white” can make it difficult to read as they are difficult to ignore and can be distracting.
  • Aim for universal design principles and you’ll end up helping not just people with cognitive disabilities, but a broad range of people.
  • Twitter icon from
  • Designing for cognitive disabilities

    1. Designing for cognitive disabilities<br />by Ruth Ellison<br />at UX Australia 2011<br />on 25 August 2011<br />@RuthEllison<br />From @StamfordUX<br />Image credit: My Brain by My Name is Rom ™ from <br />Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license<br />
    2. Work at Stamford Interactive<br />Live in Canberra<br />Chocolate appreciator<br />Love robots<br />Hi, I’m Ruth<br />Love gadgets<br />Caricature by the talented Hayley Welsh<br />User experience designer<br />Skeptic and critical thinker<br />
    3. What are cognitive disabilities?<br />...any sort of cognitive disorder that impairs understanding and functioning. <br />Australian Human Rights Commission<br />
    4. Not binary<br />Cognitive disabilities range greatly in severity<br />Dad: bad with numbers<br />Richard Branson: dyslexia<br />profound<br />mild impairment<br />Grandma: bad memory<br />
    5. There is no one-size-fits-allrule<br />
    6. Proloquo2Go™<br />
    7. Functional groupings<br />Memory<br />Problem solving<br />Math comprehension<br />Attention<br />Reading, linguistic and verbal comprehension<br />Visual comprehension<br />From Bohman & Anderson’s functional cognitive disabilities model, 2005 and<br />
    8. Tips For an inclusive user experience<br />
    9. Tip #1: Indicate progress<br />Memory<br />Provide simple reminders such as a progress bar <br />Consider labelling each step<br />Source of images:<br />
    10. Tip #2:help recover from errors<br />Error messages should be as explanatory as possible<br />Tell users what they did wrong and how to fix the problem<br />Problem solving<br />
    11. Tip #3: be predictable<br />Ensure that navigation is consistent throughout the siteSimilar interface elements and similar interactions should produce predictably similar results<br />Memory<br />Source:<br />
    12. Tip #4: avoid distractions<br />Avoid distracting background images, noises or moving elements<br />Attention<br />Source:<br />
    13. Tip #5: allow user to control movement and timing<br />Allow users to control content updates or changes.<br />Attention<br />
    14. Tip #6: calculate it automatically<br />Math comprehension<br />
    15. Tip #7: be multi-modal<br />The more ways to convey your content, the easier it becomes to communicate to others. <br />Pair icons or graphics with text to provide contextual cues and help with content comprehension<br />Basic Tango Steps for Men<br />Step forward with your left foot<br />Step forward with your right foot passing the left foot<br />Step forward again with your left foot, this time passing the right foot<br />Step forward and to the right with your right foot<br />Left foot close to right foot<br />Visual comprehension<br />Reading, linguistic and verbal comprehension<br />Source:<br />Source:<br />
    16. Tip #8: plain language<br />Reading, linguistic and verbal comprehension<br /><br />
    17. Tip #9: left align<br />Reading, linguistic and verbal comprehension<br />Source: (text),<br />
    18. In many cases, the techniques for making web content more accessible to people with cognitive disabilities are nothing more than techniques for effective communication.<br />WebAIM<br />
    19. Useful resources<br />Clear Helper: Web Accessibility for People with Intellectual / Cognitive Disabilities<br />Cognitive Disabilities Part 1: We Still Know Too Little, and We Do Even Less, Bohman, Paul. 2004. from<br />Cognitive Disabilities and the Web: Where Accessibility and Usability Meet? By Mariger, Heather. from<br />What Problems Do People with Disabilities Have? and Why?, from<br />How People with Disabilities Use the Web by W3C, from<br />The Forgotten People: Designing for Cognitive Disability, from<br />An Accessibility Frontier: Cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties, Hudson, Roger., Weakley, R. And Firminger, P. from<br />Evaluating Cognitive Web Accessibility, from<br />Ruth Ellison’s cognitive disabilities bookmarks:<br />
    20. Ruth Ellison<br />Email:<br />Web:<br /> @RuthEllison<br /> @StamfordUX<br />Find this presentation at<br />