On cognitive accessibility

This week I attended my first Accessible Bristol, which was an interesting talk by Alastair Somerville about cognitive accessibility. Slides are available.

Although I had worked on accessible websites before, and seen my bit of cognitive science at university, the combination of accessibility and cognition in one term was new to me. Cognitive accessibility, Alastair described, is the state you reach when something is perceivable, intelligible and actionable by as many people as possible. All three will have to be the case for it to work.

Alastair showed some example projects where he worked on improving cognitive accessibility, including the application of an urban design paradigm called “shared space at Exhibition Road in London.

Making things accessible cognitively, is about personalisation

The impairments we are looking at are things like dyslexia and autism, but also dementia and ageing. Cognitive impairments apply to all users: not only do we all age, situations of cognitive impairment happen to us all. This can be as simple as being in a foreign country, unable to read the menu. For it applies to all of us, cognitive accessibility is about inclusion, Alastair argued.

This is what we should design for, too. Alastair shared these words by Dieter Rams (citation needed):

Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.

So, in other words, for designers to impose a reality onto your users is a bad thing. All people are different, cognitive impairment differs from person to person. Instead, designers should try to understand the reality the user is in and start from there. Cognitive accessibility, then, Alastair said, is about personalisation. It is about making something work for someone, or for someone’s personal reality, so to say.

Interesting projects in cognitive accessibility

There are many (research) projects in cognitive accessibility going on, Alastair shared some of those:

  1. Eiman Kanjo’s research on emotion in place / redesigning physical space
  2. The W3C Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force, and Jamie Knight’s blog posts: part 1 and part 2
  3. Steve Maslin (Schumacher institute, Bristol), works in physical design. His blog post about design for the mind
  4. The US Army is doing really interesting research on a thing called ”responsive data load through emotionally aware devices”

Designing for happiness

Concluding, Alastair described happiness as “well directed attention”, so being happy is when your attention is well directed. Attention is a feature of one’s cognition, hence it is very personal, and personalisation is the strategy to make things more accessible cognitively. This brings us to the equation Alastair ended with: cognitive accessibility = personalisation = design for happiness.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, because if happiness is so personal, the problem, I think, would be that one thing is used by a lot of different persons. How can we keep all happy, personalise for those who need it, yet don’t disturb those who don’t?

Building a website, for example, one can define focus styles. That way keyboard users can keep track of the element currently in focus. Often though, I have worked with designers that would ask me to remove the focus styles, because they also showed up for non-keyboard users, which did not fit in the look and feel they had in mind. The Dieter Rams quote applies to those designers, obviously, but surely I can understand what they want is make a pretty website.

Another website-related example is skip links: they can be very useful for specific people that use them, for others they might feel unnecessary. Many websites only show them when a tab key is pressed, which is a way to make them available to those who need them, yet invisible for those who don’t. An interesting talk I saw about this was by Johan Huijkman of Q42, who has added lots of a11y improvements to Dutch public transport website 9292.nl that were invisible to most, yet available to those in need. Slides available (in Dutch). He too related accessibility to the user’s experience, and called the accessibility layer “invisible” UX.

Making accessibility invisible is not always the best solution: traffic lights that indicate their state with warning sounds, for example, are just out there, offering a useful level of cognition to users that need it. Or subtitles/dubbing added to speech in foreign languages on television: it is made visible/audible to all, including those who do understand the foreign language.

How can we decide which levels of accessibility to add, what to improve, and how to do this? Alastair mentioned various ways, including testing with (cognitively impaired) users. He also mentioned it can help to read personal blogs of those who are cognitively impaired and describe how they interact, whether physically or digitally. In the end, it is all about caring more about the reality your users live in, and less about your own.

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