Creating an Inclusive Digital World: Understanding Neurodiversity in Design and Content

Creating an Inclusive Digital World: Understanding Neurodiversity in Design and Content

11.10.2023

Everyday, our brains work differently, whether we're neurotypical or neurodiverse. Conditions like Autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia aren't illnesses - we now see them as unique ways of perceiving the world and processing information. Embracing neuroinclusivity, which means tailoring content and interfaces to accommodate these differences, is becoming essential in designing both online and offline spaces.

October is the global awareness month for ADHD, and it's a good time to take a closer look at something that sometimes escapes our industry's attention.

As a psychologist who has dedicated over half of my time in academic work to neuroscience, I'm particularly fascinated by the relationship between brain structure, function, and behavior. I believe that anyone involved in strategy - be it marketing, communication, sales, or UX - should understand the nature and biological basis of key cognitive and emotional mechanisms that influence consumer behavior, even at a fundamental level. Moreover, it's worth exploring instances where deviations from the norm occur - which, as we will see shortly, are not as rare as one might think.


Neurodiversity


Neurodiversity is a term used to emphasize the existence of individual differences in the structure and functioning of the nervous system in people, both neurotypical and neuroatypical.

A neurotypical person typically exhibits a functioning style that is close to the standard - the development of the nervous system progresses in a similar way, at a similar pace and rhythm. Most people are neurotypical, but even within this 'norm,' we observe a wide spectrum of differences.

On the other hand, neuroatypicality/non-neurotypicality signifies a significant deviation in neurological functioning from this democratically accepted 'norm' or 'typicality.' This includes conditions such as autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and IPD (Information Processing Disorder) - a cluster of information processing disorders encompassing dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

It's worth noting that disorders related to neuroatypicality are not currently considered pathological or diseases. Moving away from pathologizing these conditions is due to the fact that each of them represents a set of various symptoms resulting from slightly different functioning of various brain structures. The intensity of these symptoms exists on a spectrum, ranging from zero to high. Moreover, the actual manifestation of symptoms depends on the extent to which a person can compensate for them using learned strategies.

Therefore, there is no clear-cut boundary between 'norm' and 'pathology.' We lack an objective diagnostic tool, and the diagnosis itself often depends on the impact of these symptoms on the quality of life, how they manifest in everyday life, how a person copes with the challenges they present, and how all of this affects their well-being.

It's essential to understand that being neuroatypical is not a flaw or defect - it's simply a different way the brain functions. Contemporary efforts for neurological diversity promote active actions to better understand and accept neurodiversity through psychoeducation.

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How widespread is this phenomenon?


The latest estimates indicate that at least 1% of the population consists of individuals diagnosed with autism or its spectrum, around 5% with ADHD, and even over 10% with dyslexia. In total, at least a few dozen, and according to some sources (Conditt, 2020), even up to thirty percent of the population. This means that every third person may experience certain difficulties due to differences in brain structure and nervous system functioning - it's no longer a marginal issue!

This applies to both men and women - although for many years, it was believed that women exhibited neuroatypical traits much less frequently. However, today we know that girls tend to strongly mask and compensate for symptoms (source), mainly due to socialization - current diagnostic criteria are increasingly recognizing the unique presentation of the female autism or ADHD spectrum.


What challenges do neurodivergent individuals face?


A particular form of neurodiversity in the context of interface design is ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It largely affects cognitive and executive functions, such as attention, planning, memory, impulse control - which is why individuals with ADHD often struggle when interacting with poorly designed websites and content.

This typically manifests as:
  • Difficulty in intentionally focusing attention and low resistance to distractions - meaning that random stimuli can easily disrupt concentration.
  • Involuntary, persistent over-focus on (often insignificant) details - especially when they are sensory-rich (intense colors, sounds).
  • Impulsivity and self-control challenges - due to the weakening of the prefrontal cortex responsible for planning and inhibiting reactions.
  • Repeated errors due to inattention, such as not reading instructions, accidentally skipping form fields, or leaving an exam sheet.
  • Difficulty in completing tasks, especially those that are tedious, boring, or lack immediate rewards.
  • Challenges in attentive listening and zoning out during conversations.
  • Difficulty in following instructions.
  • Impatience, inability to wait calmly for one's turn or the results of actions.
  • Challenges in organizing work, estimating the time required to complete a task ('time blindness').
  • Many other more or less common situations.

adhd


Can it be cured?


No, autism, ADHD, or dyslexia are not diseases, so they cannot be cured. The subtle differences in brain structure that affect somewhat different cognitive functioning are relatively stable - they cannot be changed through psychotherapy or medication. However, individuals with these conditions develop various strategies on their own or through professional psychoeducation to help them cope with challenging symptoms - to better plan their work, complete tasks, focus attention for longer periods, improve memory, and better organize their space, among other things. There are also medications, mainly based on methylphenidate, which temporarily (for a few hours) reduce the intensity of ADHD symptoms. However, after this period, everything returns to the demanding 'norm.'

That's why it's essential to consider their needs in public spaces; symptoms of ADHD or dyslexia can be particularly challenging when dealing with a world designed by neurotypical individuals, for both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals.


Victims of Hostile Interfaces


Those who don't fit the 'norm' become 'victims' of poorly designed interfaces, the result of unconscious negligence on the part of those designing both offline spaces (offices, classrooms) and online spaces (news websites, educational platforms, messengers, banking apps, registration forms, e-commerce, and so on).

Distracted by a pop-up ad while shopping online, they end up on Facebook and abandon the conversion process they had started.
They skip fields in overly long forms or abandon them halfway.
They become quickly discouraged by long page loading times.
Due to inattention, they select an unwanted delivery or payment option - simply because it was pre-selected and placed at the top.

In the example below, the user completed the entire product ordering process, inadvertently choosing 'cash on delivery' as the payment option. Upon seeing the order confirmation, they were puzzled by the absence of a 'pay' button - only then realizing the option they had selected. They had to cancel the order with Customer Support, then reassemble it, and... out of habit, repeated the same mistake. How determined must such a consumer be to go through the process a third time?

If this story seems trivial or amusing to you - you're right. From an outsider's perspective, it's hard not to smile. However, imagine that you are the user in this situation, dealing with ADHD symptoms on a daily basis; how much energy, stress, and complications does this cost you?

On the other hand, what will be the business consequences of not being aware of such situations and needs? How many lost conversions, upselling opportunities, and chances to build customer loyalty?
That's why I'm writing about it.
(Of course, we can research this together!)


Neuroinclusivity


The term "neuroinclusivity" refers to intentionally considering and adapting content in a way that makes it accessible and understandable to people with various cognitive styles, as well as neurological dysfunctions or disorders, including individuals with autism, ADHD, or dyslexia. Neuroinclusive interface design and content creation require an understanding of these differences and the ability to tailor solutions to be user-friendly for a wide range of audiences.

So, how do you create a neuroinclusive online environment? The fundamental rule should be a designer's universal compass: "First, don't make it difficult." Don't throw obstacles in the user's way, don't complicate conversion paths, and don't distract them from the most important Call to Action (CTA).

But specifically, here are some guidelines based on current neuropsychological knowledge!

Neuroinclusive UI/UX design:
1. Predictability: Elements are placed in standard locations, the style is consistent, and users know what to expect from each element. This saves the brain from wasting time and energy on relearning each page from scratch.
2. Grid: An organized layout of elements makes content more accessible. Distances between elements and their sizes are regular, and image placement is based on a predetermined grid. The content flow is clear, and the layout intuitively supports content reception in the right sequence (from left to right, top to bottom, from more prominent to less prominent). Visual elements like gradients, lines, and arrows can assist in guiding the eye in the right direction.
3. Colors: While colors matter to everyone, in some cases (e.g., autism spectrum) heightened or diminished sensory sensitivity can lead to disruptions in color perception. Excessive stimuli can cause sensory overload. Neuroinclusive design features subdued colors, uniform shades, a narrower color palette, and a simple background that doesn't divert attention from the content.
4. Contrast: Many people unconsciously struggle with visual sensory processing disorders, and overly bright or high-contrast graphics can hinder effective content absorption. Allow users to adjust contrast and brightness settings independently; what seems completely fine to one person may be blindingly bright to another, and sometimes standard contrast requires adjustment. Familiarize yourself with the current accessibility standards, such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
5. Beauty vs. utility: The universal design principle is to strike a balance between following trends and the artistic finesse of the designer while maintaining transparency and minimalism that accommodate diverse cognitive needs.

Neuroinclusive content - neurocopywriting:
1. Clarity and simplicity: Use plain language and avoid excessive words, unnecessary jargon, and metaphors. Where needed, provide additional explanations that are straightforward, specific, and without abstractions.
2. Care and precision: Proofread, edit, and revise several times. It's not just about fixing typos or distracting errors but also about removing anything non-essential from the content. Reduce, extract the essence. "Trim the fat!"
3. Write in the active voice rather than passive. It's easier to understand a sentence like "Peter bought flowers at the market" than "Flowers were bought at the market by Peter" - it requires simpler cognitive processes and is less engaging for the brain.
4. Be cautious with symbolic elements that require special abstract interpretation, such as emojis. They demand greater cognitive effort and can generate potential misunderstandings. (We have created a Polish report on how emojis are understood in various ways by different people: Karcz-Czajkowska, A., Glinkowska A., 2022)
5. Structure: Divide the text into short paragraphs and create smaller and shorter chapters. Small portions are easier to digest, and completing a chapter quickly provides gratification—associated with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for focusing attention and motivation. Small successes equal longer engagement in reading!
6. Visual hierarchy: Use headers and bulleted or numbered lists to make content more accessible.
7. Typography and formatting: Choose a legible sans-serif font and avoid excessive visual embellishments that can be distracting. Bold important information but don't overuse bold or italics. Fun fact: there's a special font called Dyslexie designed for people with dyslexia. The whole story is described in a TED talk.
 - You can also use applications like Readable or ChatGPT to check and then improve text clarity and readability. Useful prompt: "Edit this text to make it more accessible for people with ADHD, autism spectrum, and dyslexia."
10. Graphics within content: Use images that illustrate and support the content. Avoid excessively bright or flashy graphics.
11. Variety of formats: Different people absorb knowledge in different ways. Some like to read, while others listen to podcasts or watch videos. If possible, offer your materials in multiple parallel forms. Give users the choice of the most effective format aligned with their cognitive style and lifestyle (e.g., long commutes to work). 
 - For audio and video content, remember to include subtitles and transcripts.
 - Some people prefer to print out text instead of reading it on a screen. Prepare a "print-friendly" version that is printer-friendly (with a light or plain background, fewer graphics, etc.).
12. If you create interactive and engaging content, make sure it has clear instructions and is easy to use. Many people also appreciate the ability to control sound or playback speed.
13. Consider diversity in your content by showcasing people from various backgrounds. This can help build a greater sense of belonging among your audience.
14. Accessibility: Use technologies that support accessibility, such as screen readers and complete "alt" attributes (alternative text for images).

Neuroinclusivity in everyday life:
1. Gather and consider feedback from the target audience: Neuroinclusivity involves accommodating diverse neurological functions. Therefore, it's valuable to collect opinions and adjust content based on feedback and the full context to modify initial theoretical assumptions (including the ones above!).
2. If possible, consult your content with psychologists and other experts in neuroinclusivity.
3. Prioritize continuous self-education in neuroinclusivity. The world and people are constantly evolving, so staying up-to-date with best practices is essential.

In conclusion, we may soon realize this important truth: neuroinclusive design is simply good and universal design. Although the brains of non-neurotypical individuals function slightly differently, the cognitive processes that guide all people are ultimately governed by universal principles, primarily cognitive economy. Although the brain weighs only about 3 pounds, it consumes about 4.5 ounces of glucose daily—almost a quarter of an adult's daily energy expenditure. It's no wonder that we don't waste it! This is well explained by the concept of the "cognitive miser" (Fiske, Taylor, 1991)—our primary biological interest is to avoid unnecessary intellectual work. We protect ourselves from information overload, save energy required for thinking, take shortcuts, and prefer solutions that make it easier.

The main message of this article is an encouragement to create experiences that are understandable, accessible, and user-friendly for the widest possible audience, taking into account diverse cognitive and sensory needs.

Creating an inclusive environment, free from barriers and distractors, should be a subject of active interest and responsibility for designers of both virtual and physical spaces. This applies to employees, consumers, students, so it must become a subject of urgent action for UX designers, managers, team leaders, directors of educational institutions, teachers, and strategists.

Want to check if your website complies with accessibility and neuroinclusivity standards? Contact us and schedule a consultation: [email protected].

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Aleksandra
Aleksandra Augustowska

IT Project Manager