Designing a digital UX for users with cognitive differences

When designing accessible digital products and services, steps can be taken to improve the user experience for those with varying cognitive abilities – a topic of discussion at Digital.gov Government UX Summit 2022 this week.

As states push for greater digital accessibility and more inclusive digital services, government agencies are adopting new approaches, opting for simplicity, and increasingly rethinking past design practices.

Accessibility efforts sometimes focus on users with physical disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments, but cognitive disabilities and differences can also impact the user experience.


During a virtual session titled “Designing for people with dementia (and everyone else),” Library of Congress digital accessibility architect Rachael Bradley Montgomery explained that there are as many diversity in the area of ​​cognitive disabilities than in that of physical disabilities.

“And so the first step to really designing for people with cognitive and learning disabilities is to understand that diversity,” she said, giving several examples like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, brain damage and age-related forgetfulness.

Screenshot from the “Designing for People With Cognitive Disabilities (And Everyone Else)” session at the Digital.gov 2022 Government UX Summit.

She recommended starting the design process using characters to act as a cross-section of user goals and challenges. There are 10 characters created by the World Wide Web Consortium available in their resource, “Make content usable for people with cognitive and learning disabilitiesand these characters can help combat unconscious bias.

The next recommendation she made was to think about design patterns. For example, before a user embarks on a multi-step task, they should be clear about how long it will take, what the process will be like, and any charges or fees they might incur.

“There’s a lot of overlap between supporting the needs of this community and really good UX practice,” she said.

Another part of the design patterns takes into account the impact complex connections can have on people with cognitive impairments. Asking users to memorize strings of characters, solve puzzles, or recognize characters on the screen are cognitive tests that can unintentionally limit accessibility. A more user-friendly option, she said, is to use multi-factor authentication on another device.

A design guide can also be a useful place to document navigation approach, layouts, fonts, and language usage, which will simplify testing and create a consistent user experience.

Another session that touched on a related user experience was “Designing Digital Products for Adults with Low Literacy,” where Sheila Walsh, Public Affairs Specialist for the Department of Health and Human Services, touched on UX during more 50 percent American adults who score below an international literacy benchmark.

As Walsh explained, adult literacy struggles span all ages and demographics, noting that “literacy levels can vary throughout life, sometimes declining as people age. “.

There are common patterns to consider for this demographic. For example, users with low literacy usually ignore information to the left or right of the main content. They also tend to avoid the search function. And those in this demographic who have a poor user experience with a digital service tend to blame themselves.

However, there are design practices that can help improve user experience, Walsh said. She recommended using plain language, varying typography, designing for mobile devices, following design guidelines, using multiple content types, and conducting inclusive usability testing.

“So really, some simple things can make a big difference,” Walsh said.

Some best practices for users with low literacy overlap with those for users with cognitive impairments, such as avoiding dense blocks of text and the need for plain language. In both sessions, plainlanguage.gov was highlighted as a useful resource for inclusive design.

Julia Edinger

Julia Edinger is a writer for Government Technology. She holds a BA in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She is currently located in Southern California.

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