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