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Designed for neuro-diversity friendliness

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

By DiverseMinds Research Team

Reading time 8 minutes ⏰


We live in an era of increasing awareness of neurodiversity. To be cautious, at least 20 percent of the population falls into the neurodiversity category. However, many of these people still do not know why they are so exhausted, anxious or even depressed.


However, we can make words, visuals, and even structure and flow more inclusive and friendly to them through design.


First, anxiety makes using digital products more difficult

COVID-19 poses an enduring challenge to humanity, with people becoming more prone to anxiety and depression, particularly among neurodiverse people.


Prof. Amanda Kirby posted the following stats on LinkedIn:


About 40 percent of people with autism (ASD), more than 15 percent of people with dyslexia and 25 to 40 percent of people with ADHD have some anxiety. (ADHD/ASC/Dyslexia/DCD disorders often stack on top of each other)

This means that products and services should provide a friendly experience that does not exacerbate user anxiety. All users, whether neurotypical or neurodiverse, will benefit.


The Web Content Accessibility Guide is helpful for visual inclusion, But when it comes to guiding users through the product, structure and functionality need to be reflected in thoughtful content design and smart UX functionality.


If we can also consider people who are not aware of their neurodiversity, imagine them browsing an overly complex and informative website and feeling anxious because of the lack of microscopes, help texts and misinformation. The apparent result is a high jump rate. This is naturally what enterprises do not want to see, so we need to find ways to reduce the sense of pressure and psychological costs that products may bring.


Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors who leave after only visiting an entry page (such as the front page of a website) compared to the total number of visitors generated. In this movement to promote a change in inclusive design, Doug Kim (Microsoft designer and co-author of Respecting Focus), committed to making neurodiversity widely accepted rather than simply aware of the concept, is a good example. As lead content Design Manager at Microsoft Azure, Doug is building Azure's neurodiversity program. He is convinced that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift regarding inclusive design.


Second is the exhaustion caused by masking.

Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic nowadays, we live harder than ever. Sometimes, we need to mask hardship and show that life is every day, and exhaustion is a familiar feeling for many of us.


For neurodiversity, however, dissembling is no easy task. Individuals with autism frequently feel compelled to demonstrate or exhibit social habits deemed neurotypical in situations where neurodiversity is neither understood nor encouraged. They even need to hide their differences from childhood as a survival mechanism. However, whatever the intent, masking can have serious health consequences:


  • Stress and anxiety: A 2019 study found that people who frequently covered up autistic features had more stress and anxiety than those who did not.

  • Depression: In 2018, researchers interviewed 111 adults with autism and found that those who reported masking their autistic traits all had symptoms of depression and felt socially unacceptable.

  • Exhaustion: Masking takes much energy. A 2016 study found that women who masked themselves as neurotypical said the constant pretence left them exhausted.

  • Delayed recognition of autism: Some people disguise their autism so successfully that it is not discovered until they are older. This delay can lead to mental health problems by not getting the support or understanding they need.

  • The risk of autism burnout: When people force themselves to act in ways that do not feel real, it can be an overwhelming sense of overload, sometimes called autism burnout. Masking may take longer to recover.

In short, in a society designed for most neurotypicals, the life of neurodiversity is a challenge, masked or not. Imagine how stressful it can be to act "normal" at work when you have a survey to complete within a given time or when you are trying to use a poorly designed app.

So, what can UX design do to make life easier and more inclusive?

Guidelines for neurodiversity design

The following is from Irina Rusakova, Designing for the Autistic Community.

1. Clear, consistent and simple design

When we design products, clear product layout, consistent design pattern, logical content grouping and concise copy communication can help users reduce cognitive load and increase product availability for everyone. Do not complicate simple functions. Aimless showy skills will make your products lack intuition.


2. Avoid ambiguity

One of the cognitive differences between autistic people and neurotypicals, for example, is that they see the details first and then the big picture. So the design of navigation and page layout is just as important as conveying the product message and highlighting the page's purpose. When it comes to text and word use, focus on clarity and consistency, too: literal nuances can create ambiguities in expression and rhetoric.

  • Use simple words. This will increase readability.

  • Add labels to ICONS.

  • Avoid using verbal rhetoric or expressions.

  • When designing, ask yourself, "Will this be misunderstood?" If the answer is yes, it needs to be redesigned. Of course, this principle also benefits speakers of different cultures and languages.


3. Pay attention to colour

A large proportion of neurodiversity is sensitive to the brightness of colour. This is caused by visual overload. So try to avoid extreme contrasting colours, at the same time reduce the brightness and luminance of the colours, and use natural or soft colours.


4. Avoid unexpected interactions

According to the British government, 40 percent of people with autism suffer from anxiety, and the autistic community believes the figure is even higher. An intrusive interaction (popup) or a sudden sound on a page may seem like a common disturbance to an average person. However, to an autistic person, it can cause severe anxiety.


5. Support control

Control time: Allow users to process and interact with information at a comfortable pace. For example, some people wish to have more time to fill in forms, and they think limited time will bring pressure. Allow the user to save and return to the form, and make sure the "timeout" is reasonable.

Ensure accurate interaction with the content: Unmanageable animation elements on the page are very uncomfortable and distracting. If multiple elements on a page are dynamic, ensure they interact consistently.


Allow personalization: allows users to adjust font, text size, line spacing, colour, background theme, foreground colour, and more. Allow users to create their preferences and interact with content most comfortably and straightforwardly.


6. Consider design from a global perspective

It may be that the individual touchpoints of our product are well designed, but minor errors accumulated in other parts can make the entire experience inaccessible.


Make sure the critical parts of the experience are as simple as possible, such as logging in, paying, logging out, etc. (completing a complex login can make things more anxious). At the same time, increasing reciprocal feedback, anxiety, and a low tolerance for uncertainty force neurodiversity to abandon the journey when it feels too challenging. Adding explicit information to the process (a transparent progress bar or a preview of what is coming) makes it more accessible.


7. Inclusion of broader accessibility guidelines

Due to sensory overload and anxiety, people with autism often resort to additional accessibility features when using products. For example, turn off sound and use subtitles in a video, use TTS software to "listen" instead of reading, or use the Tab key to navigate. Therefore, the overall accessibility of digital experience will benefit neurodiversity.

Neuro-diversity groups are more vulnerable and helpless. In the digital space, inclusion and kindness are a luxury for them. Hopefully, this article will help you start thinking about neuro-inclusion in design and start trying to do something for the neurodiverse.

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