Consider Cognitive Needs

Cognitive considerations are particularly relevant to Web-based material. Most agree that the Web can present information in a way that overwhelms. Research and innovation in areas like visualization, text simplification, and generally interface design are squarely concerned with making Web content more approachable, readable, and digestible.

This is another area where accessibility and inclusivity should enter the conversation. Inclusively-designed Web content can address the needs of a large audience while also addressing the needs of those with particular needs in cognitive, language, and learning areas. And as we contend elsewhere, many of the techniques described are useful for making information clearer and more easily used for all audiences.

Starting points

  • Some users have trouble understanding text, especially unusual words and complicated sentences.
  • Some users have trouble doing operations that require many steps, or that have many choices.
  • Some users have trouble skimming text to find what they are looking for.

Text and/or Content simplification

While there are many problems users may face, there are a few general design approaches that will help many users. Most of these approaches will make your content better for all users, and none of them will make your content worse.

  • Use multiple modalities (text, pictures, sound) to present information. People differ in their ability to process information in different forms. So providing more than one form reaches more people.
  • Don't rely on any one modality to work on its own. While some users can't see the screen, others can't hear audio alerts.
  • For some users, using symbols, in addition to pictures, will be helpful.
  • Use clear, simple organization of information. Use headings and layout to make it clear what the organization is.

A challenge for all users is finding the information they want on websites and web pages that contain lot of information that they don't want. A look at a newspaper shows the basic tools for helping with this:

  • Use headings to make it easy to identify different topics.
  • Use layout to make it easy to separate different topics.
  • Present the most important information first. Newspaper writers are careful to organize a story so that the first paragraph can be read by itself to get the basic information. Readers who are interested, and have the time, can read more.
  • Use a simple linear structure within a topic. While sidebars and boxes are sometimes used, newspaper stories are usually structured so that they are read from beginning to end.
  • Some Web sites are being redesigned to offer simple, uncluttered presentations on mobile devices with small screens. According to Markoff(2008) some users find these presentations easier to use that more cluttered presentations on large screens.
  • Make text easy to read.
  • Use familiar words where possible. Avoid long, complicated sentences.
  • Use short lines of text. Shorter lines of text will minimize users getting lost when transitioning from the end of one line to the start of the next line.
  • Avoid fully-justified text that creates whitespace of varying size between words. The varying whitespace makes it harder to follow the line of words.
  • Use solid backgrounds. Patterned backgrounds can make text "swim", making the text difficult to read. It can also make it difficult for users to recognize words and track along the required sequence.
  • Make it possible for users to shape your presentation to fit them.

User Interface simplification

Floe's User Interface Options makes it possible for users to change the size of fonts, and change the colors that are used so that text is easier to read for them. Here are some other ways users can control your presentation.

  • Let users ask for definitions or explanations of unfamiliar terms and abbreviations.
  • If you use expressions that aren't meant literally, provide an explanation. Some users can work out what the words in a sentence mean literally, but may not get what is really meant. For example, the sentence, "The new phone is the best thing since sliced bread," has nothing to do with bread. If it is important to say it, indicate to the user that an explanation is available.
  • Support users' assistive technology. If someone uses a screen reader, or text to speech features on their computer, your content should be tagged in a way that makes this work well.
  • Let users suppress details. If the headings in your content are tagged, users can ask to see only the headings when they first look at your page, and then ask for the details on only the parts that are important to them.
  • Make interactions as simple and clear as possible.

Floe has conducted some early design work showing UI simplification around content.

Issues and Controversies

There has been disagreement within the Web Accessibility community about how to address accessibility for people with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities.

  • Controversy: Some people feel that cognitive accessibility can't be tested, objectively and cheaply. This view affects what is included in guidelines and regulations. Other people feel that user testing could be required.