Neurodiversity and designing for difference
What does it mean to design for neurodiversity? We look at steps we can take to make content more accessible to more people.
“Neurodiversity is a deeply personal subject,” Aiden Healy said in a webinar during Neurodiversity Celebration Week.
“It goes to the heart of people's identities. This means people talk about it in different ways, use different words."
‘Neurodiversity’ describes the differences in how we think, learn and behave. For example, how we communicate, socialise, remember information, and go about our day.
There's no single picture of neurodiversity.
Designing for difference
So how do we design content that accounts for difference?
To help someone find, get or do a thing, we need to understand how they:
- focus their attention,
- remember things,
- make decisions,
Neurodivergent people have different traits. These can affect how they:
- read, write and spell,
- speak and listen,
- describe feelings,
- do sums,
- make plans,
- recall information,
- imagine, feel and understand things.
We must understand and consider these before we start designing. As Microsoft says in its Inclusivity Guidebook:
It starts with seeing human diversity as a resource for better designs.
Everyone has unconscious biases, even when we have the best intentions. But making assumptions about the people we’re designing for can harm them.
Let’s reject the idea of ‘average users’. Instead, we can understand and respect people’s differences and needs by:
- doing research with neurodivergent people,
- involving them in the design process,
- reflecting the language they choose to use,
- learning the main principles of content accessibility.
How people process and remember information varies. Some people need more support with things like:
- following instructions,
- completing forms,
- using contact details,
- logging in and typing passwords,
- using calendars.
As content designers, our job is to help people do a task as easily as possible. Doing this often involves reducing or hiding complexity. This is to help reduce the cognitive load.
The more someone needs to read and understand, the harder it can be to do a task. It’s about giving the right information, at the right time. For example, telling people what they’ll need before they begin an application.
We can also:
- break up big blocks of text with headings and bullet lists,
- stagger information, one step at a time,
- remove information that’s not needed at that time,
- be consistent in our language,
- simplify webpage layout to remove clutter,
- avoid unexpected things like pop-up boxes or videos that play automatically,
- make contact details easy to see in case something goes wrong,
- provide helpful error messages that say what to do next.
Give plenty of time
Not everyone works well under pressure. Let people interact with your content at their own pace. Allow them to save their progress too, in case they get distracted or need a break.
Try to avoid:
- saying something is ‘quick’ or ‘simple’,
- saying how long something should take to do or read,
- short time limits to complete bookings,
- logging people out automatically after a short time,
- codes that are only valid for a short time.
Neurodivergent people customise technology in different ways to suit their needs. For example, changing how a webpage looks and behaves.
This can include:
- adjusting the font size and type,
- changing text and background colours,
- turning off animated elements,
- using screenreading software.
Instead of using accessibility overlays, let people use their own tools for customisation.
Opening up our content
The world is still largely designed for ‘neurotypical’ people. So we all have a responsibility to consider how our decisions affect and exclude people.
There’s no such thing as fully accessible, only more or less accessible to certain people.
Designing for differences is about making mindful choices. With the decisions we take, who are we excluding? And how can we be more inclusive?
Designing for neurodiversity ultimately helps open up our content so more people benefit.
Read more about designing for neurodiversity
Designing for people with dyscalculia and low numeracy by Laura Parker, Jayne McFadyen and Rachel Malic.
Designing with the autistic community by Irina Rusakova.
Dos and don'ts on designing for accessibility by Karwai Pun.
How to use Bionic Reading for people with dyslexia and ADHD by Joe Fedewa.
Inclusivity and content design from Content Teatime.
Simple writing is better writing by Ettie Bailey-King.
With thanks to Content Club members Graeme Yorkson, Denise Tench, Lisa Remlinger, and Maddie Broxup for sharing links with us.