Cog­ni­tive ac­ces­si­bil­ity

Mark Noo­nan of­fers up some in­sight from six years work­ing with adults with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Mark Noo­nan (@mark­t­noo­nan) is a web de­vel­oper at Con­tent Thread, for­mer pro­gram man­ager at Peo­ple Mak­ing Progress and co-or­gan­iser at Code for At­lanta.

Mark Noo­nan of­fers in­sight from his work with adults with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties

I’ve spent many hours sup­port­ing peo­ple with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties to carry out tasks on mod­ern user in­ter­faces. Do­ing so has left me with some ob­ser­va­tions about web devel­op­ment and cog­ni­tive ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

The most strik­ing thing to me has been those mo­ments where I know some­body is able to do a task in the real world, like writ­ing a let­ter, but they strug­gle to do the on­line ver­sion of the same task: send­ing an email. There is a gap be­tween the com­plex­ity of a given task it­self and the com­plex­ity of the user in­ter­face cre­ated for ac­com­plish­ing it.

My job as some­body help­ing that per­son is of­ten to bridge that gap with train­ing. We teach the spe­cific set of steps needed to send an email, add some­thing to a cal­en­dar, check the up­com­ing weather or clock in at an em­ployer. Such train­ing re­lies more on mus­cle me­mory than on teach­ing how to in­ter­pret a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­face, since they change of­ten.

My job as a de­vel­oper is dif­fer­ent: I try to think of ways to close the gap. I look for ways to re­duce the cog­ni­tive de­mands of the user in­ter­face so that it gets closer to the dif­fi­culty of the un­der­ly­ing task. To me this is the best way to im­prove the cog­ni­tive ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the things we build. It’s fair to say that if some­body can do a task in real life but not in a given user in­ter­face, that in­ter­face has dis­abled them. We can’t com­pletely over­come this with de­sign but we can be aware of it as we build ex­pe­ri­ences.

This idea is im­por­tant if you are cre­at­ing soft­ware that’s in­tended to be used by the gen­eral pub­lic or by peo­ple who have no choice but to use it, like sites re­lated to med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, pub­lic trans­porta­tion and em­ploy­ment. You will def­i­nitely have users with cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment who have no al­ter­na­tive.

I’ve learned that when de­sign­ing for a per­son with a cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment, you are not just de­sign­ing for a hy­po­thet­i­cal user with a de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­ity. You are also ac­com­mo­dat­ing your other users who may be tired, sick, dis­tracted or work­ing un­der pres­sure, as much as those who are un­fa­mil­iar with tech­nol­ogy or find it con­fus­ing and hard to deal with. Think­ing about cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment can lead to im­prove­ments that ben­e­fit all of your users.

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