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Designing Digital UX for Users With Cognitive Differences

At’s 2022 Government UX Summit, experts shared ways that digital services can be better designed to improve the user experience for users with cognitive impairments and those with low literacy.

A hand holds a phone displaying graphic icons for messaging, browsing, and shopping.
In designing accessible digital products and services, steps can be taken to enhance the user experience of those with varying cognitive abilities — a topic of discussion at the 2022 Government UX Summit this week.

As states push for greater digital accessibility and more inclusive digital services, government agencies are taking new approaches, opting for simplicity and increasingly coming to rethink previous design practices.

Accessibility efforts are sometimes centered around users with physical disabilities, such as vision or hearing impairments, but cognitive disabilities and differences can also impact the user experience.

During a virtual session titled, “Designing for People With Cognitive Disabilities (And Everyone Else),” Library of Congress digital accessibility architect Rachael Bradley Montgomery explained that there is as much diversity within the cognitive disability space as there is within 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 stated, providing several examples like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, brain injuries and age-related forgetfulness.
Screenshot of “Designing for People With Cognitive Disabilities (And Everyone Else)" session at the 2022 Government UX Summit displays chart next to Rachael Bradley Montgomery, Library of Congress digital accessibility architect. The chart shows functional needs, including attention, language and literacy, learning, memory, executive, and mental health on the left column. On the right column are example disabilities with these needs -- respectively, 1) ADD and ADHD 2) Aphasia and Dyscalculia 3) Brain injury and Dyslexia, 4) Age-Related Forgetfulness and Mild Cognitive Impairment 5) Brain Injury and Autism and 6) Anxiety and PTSD.
Screenshot of “Designing for People With Cognitive Disabilities (And Everyone Else)" session at the 2022 Government UX Summit.
She recommended starting the design process by using personas to act as a representative sample of users’ goals and challenges. There are 10 personas created by the World Wide Web Consortium available in their resource, “Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities,” and such personas can help to combat unconscious bias.

The next recommendation she made was to think about design patterns. For example, before a user embarks on a multiple-step task, it should be clear to them how much time it will take, what the process will look 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 design patterns is considering how complex logins may impact those with cognitive disabilities. Asking users to memorize character strings, solve puzzles or recognize characters on the screen are cognitive tests that may limit accessibility unintentionally. A more user-friendly option, she said, is using multifactor authentication on another device.

A design guide can also be a helpful place to document navigation approach, layouts, fonts and language use, 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,” during which Department of Health and Human Services public affairs specialist Sheila Walsh addressed the UX for the more than 50 percent of U.S. adults that score below an international benchmark for literacy.

As Walsh explained, adults that struggle with literacy span all ages and demographics, noting “literacy level can vary throughout life, sometimes declining as people get older.”

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

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

“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 disabilities, such as avoiding dense blocks of text and the need for plain language. During both sessions, was underlined as a useful resource for inclusive design.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.