Even though neurodiversity is becoming a more and more popular term, its meaning is not common knowledge. The word itself only means that people's mental functions may work in various ways. How can we respect this fact when working on digital products? Are there any fixed rules when it comes to accessible design?
Design for neurodiversity
In 2023, accessibility is a well-known term and is considered a must-have for a digital product. The product teams aim to create experiences that are accessible to people no matter what situation they are in. The first associations that come to mind after hearing the word "accessibility" are these conditions we can easily observe. Accessibility, in fact, relates not only to motor, hearing, or visual impairments but also to cognitive barriers. And this can mean a lot.
Neurodiversity means that there are differences in the way people's brains work. These differences can refer to concentration abilities, learning, managing emotions, and other factors. Every brain is unique, but some types can be characterized. A person with ADHD will have different needs than a neurotypical person (with no condition). Other examples of neuroatypical conditions include dyslexia, autism, and depression. The estimations are that even 15-20% of people are neuroatypical. In most cases, this is something that people live with their whole lifetime, however, depression or trauma can appear at any life stage.
Why do nontypical neurotypes require a special design approach? First of all, 20% of users is a pretty big user group. And secondly, following accessibility rules benefits all users. This phenomenon is called a curb-cut effect: a solution designed for a narrow user group actually provides help to a wider audience.
Is optimizing neurodivergent users' experience difficult?
TL;DR: it's not. The strategies that allow us to improve the experience of the neurodivergent audience overlap with good practices regarding accessibility and general usability. What does it mean? When you want to make your product truly usable, it should cover these practices either way. They can be implemented easily. Let's dig deeper into a few methods that we (designers) can use when thinking about neurodiversity.
Content first: write it in plain language
One of the crucial rules is about the content itself. When writing for the web, we should aim for plain language which can be understood at-a-glance. This means avoiding too long and too complex sentences and throwing the jargon away. The text should be organized into paragraphs, so it can be easily scanned as little users read texts word by word. The vocabulary needs to be familiar to the user. This technique also benefits users with no cognitive barriers and with more extensive expertise. Studies show that when it comes to specific topics, domain experts also prefer plain texts.
Don't overwhelm your users with complicated terms and filler words. Providing simple texts will prevent them from experiencing cognitive overload.
Show what's most important and what's secondary. Or do it even better and cut all not necessary content. Allow users to focus on the most important message of your site or the crucial action on your application. Curating your site's information architecture will also improve the screen reader's users' experience and the website's SEO.
Modern design loves distracting content: flashes, videos, animations, GIFs... However, all these effects are contradictory to accessibility good practices. Some people may be unable to focus on their main tasks on such gimmicky websites. There is also another major risk in using blinking content: it can trigger photosensitive epilepsy.
Explain what will happen
All people are emotional creatures. When in distress, we tend to commit careless mistakes, overlook important information, and act in a chaotic way. Now think about people who are more prone to stress than others. No matter if it's because of their anxiety, depression or other conditions, submitting tasks online may be a challenge for them. Forms asking for personal information, long processes that give no feedback, or even error messages may cause concern. How to minimize this friction? Always provide the system's status. Users should always know what is going on and what is going to happen after for example clicking a button. The messages should not cause more distress than needed so avoid raising an alarm when someone just wants to reset their password.
User knows what happened (they provided order details) and what will happen (after providing address details they will choose payment and confirm their order).
How do we do this?
At Adchitects, UX Designers always stand for taking accessibility into consideration. While working with a client, we suggest solutions that are compliant with current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
We are aware that the basic practices that facilitate the experience of a neuroatypical user, match the best usability practices in general. Universal design is a way to provide a good experience both for the average and the extreme use case. One should not forget that neurodiversity is more common than it's assumed and that in fact, everyone will benefit from these conveniences.
Article by Anna Dulny-Leszczyńska, UX designer
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