Cognitive/Perceptual Difference And Good Web Design

8 Mar

Before Xmas, I wrote a post about how autistics use interfaces. I noted in that article that the things I had seen so far couldn’t be representative as they were only what I haad observed in my daughter Megan.

To that end I have recently been chatting online to a couple of groups of people who are autistic in order to try and get a sense of how we as web designers could better meet their needs and to develop a rounder picture of the nature of the interface related problems an autistic may face.

Firstly some definitions. The people I have most recently spoken to are mainly Aspergers (please note: they do not have Aspergers – ‘having’ implies illness/disease neither of which Aspergers is), whilst some (and my daughter) are classically autistic. There are differences in these two states of being but the basic underlying issues are the same – they are both Autistic Spectrum Disorders which are rooted in the same set of root difference.

During our discussions, the main issues raised were:

  1. Short Line length
  2. Colour combinations (light on dark is very bad)
  3. Imagery/Animation
  4. White space (rivers of white)
  5. Small text blocks
  6. Backgrounds must be solid, not patterned
  7. Single, long pages broken into small sections rather than lots of individual pages

You have to be careful in these circumstances to differentiate between personal preference and a genuine trait for all people who follow a certain diagnostic criteria. The above list is comprised of things that were mentioned by more than 2 different people.

First of all is my piece of humble pie – imagery and animation. Autistic people have no great preference for graphical interfaces with a few indicating a definite preference for textual interfaces and the majority indicating they are happy with either. At this time then I’d say that my observations of my daughter and subsequent conclusions are more relevant to her age rather than her autism – kids like pictures and animation.

Colour combinations for autistics can be tricky. Autism is heavily based around sensory difference and hence some autistics actually ‘hear’ colour (or smell sounds etc etc) and hence some colour combinations can in some circumstances be actually physically painful to some autistics. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any one colour combination that is espcially bad (or good) as, like all of us, autistics have personal preferences regarding colours. I do think though that more research in this area may reveal an autisitc ‘swatch’. This would require a more structured program of investigation though.

Autistics by and large follow NT (neurotypical) preferences in the area of line length, hence the following would be applicable to autistics as well:

Both children and adults had definite preferences. No adults chose the full length as their favorite. Most chose medium length, and narrow length was not far behind. For the children the full length was also the least preferred, with a strong preference for the narrow length.

http://www.humanfactors.com/downloads/feb03.asp

Autstics indicated a definite preference for strong, wide margins preferably in white to any areas where there was textual content and textual content on one subject should be on one (long if neccessary) page broken into small paragrpahs rather than long unbroken blocks of text spread across many pages.

Backgrounds should be solid – even a slight pattern in a background causes the page to ‘swim’ badly – remember, autism is primarily a perceptual and emotional disorder.

One of the most interesting aspects of my discussions with autistic people is their opinions on branding. Simply, they all acknowledge its there but make no emotional link with it at all. In a lot of cases autistic users find it distracting and puzzling. Especially where (for example) a logo carries a device as well as the name of the company. Most autistics struggle with metaphor and seem to find it offputting in this setting.

So what can we do to make our autistic users browsing easier? Firstly it seems we can apply a lot of the rules of good design backed up with both WCAG (although AAA may not be possible bearing the desire for smaller line length and hence a probable fixed width) and standards compliant markup. The two areas of potential difficulty that I think need more investigation are branding and developing an autistic swatch (swatches). It should be straightfoward to provide technical solutions to these issues using CSS but firstly we need to further develop these two areas with more focussed investigation.

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8 Responses to “Cognitive/Perceptual Difference And Good Web Design”

  1. Gez March 8, 2005 at 12:49 #

    Great article, Kev.

    I was particularly interested in your obersvation that people don’t ‘have’ Aspergers, but ‘are’ Aspergers. I’ve always considered it to be important not to define people by any disabilities they may or may not have. Someone can have a disorder, but describing someone purely in terms of a disorder implies that there’s not much else worth noting about that person. My thinking stems back to my schooling, 1970’s, so things have probably changed quite a lot since then. “See the person first” was drummed into us; otherwise you may hit someone else by mistake :-)

    Firstly it seems we can apply a lot of the rules of good design backed up with both WCAG (although AAA may not be possible bearing the desire for smaller line length and hence a probable fixed width) and standards compliant markup.

    Using relative units is a priority 2 checkpoint, so specifing fixed-width layouts would also fail AA. The easiest solution for line length is to specify a max-length property in ems. Of course, IE doesn’t understand max-length, but it can be achieved using a conditional expression:

    * html body
    {
    width: expression((this.parentNode.clientWidth<750)? "90%": "40em");
    }

    IE’s conditional statements could be used to include a style sheet with the above rule so that it only gets sent to IE, and prevent serving non-standard content to decent browsers.

  2. Kev March 8, 2005 at 13:10 #

    I was particularly interested in your obersvation that people don�t �have� Aspergers, but �are� Aspergers. I�ve always considered it to be important not to define people by any disabilities they may or may not have. Someone can have a disorder, but describing someone purely in terms of a disorder implies that there�s not much else worth noting about that person.

    I know what you mean :o). When I say are Aspergers I’m trying to differentiate in terms those who are diagnosed with Aspergers appreciate themselves. There’s an ominous movement in the ASD field these days to ‘cure’ autism and to treat it as a disease. Autistic people themselves identify themselves first and foremost as autistics partly in order to discredit the idea that autism is an illness or disease – the phrase currently in vogue in the mainstream media is ‘autism epidemic’ which when one considers it is pretty insulting to autistics.

    So its not really a case of perceiving the person as a diagnosis but more about recognising that that autistics are autistic, they don’t have autism – just like women don’t have femaleness, they are female.

  3. Matthew Pennell March 8, 2005 at 14:30 #

    Note that Gez’s conditional width statement will fail if Javascript is disabled/unavailable.

    Can you clarify your reference to “rivers of white”? Does that mean that there should be large swathes of whitespace between distinct blocks of content, or that you should avoid rivers of white?

    I’m sure I read somewhere that dyslexics have problems with web pages with lots of white space.

  4. Kev March 8, 2005 at 16:41 #

    Not sure about ‘large swathes’ Matthew. I’d think 10-20px margins should suffice on a typically autisitic-friendly line length.

    I’m not sure about the dyslexia issue so I’ll try and clarify that one.

  5. Gez March 8, 2005 at 19:13 #

    So its not really a case of perceiving the person as a diagnosis but more about recognising that that autistics are autistic, they don’t have autism – just like women don’t have femaleness, they are female.

    Thanks for explaining it, Kev. Being male or female is a significant characteristic. When referring to smaller groups, it’s generally good practice not to define people by those characteristics, but state that they have those characteristics. The distinction between the two is often what determines whether something is insulting, or just observational. For example: ‘He’s a ginger’ or ‘He has ginger hair’.

    I do understand your reasoning though, and can see why you would want to avoid using the term ‘have’.

    Note that Gez’s conditional width statement will fail if Javascript is disabled/unavailable.

    Sorry. I meant to point that out, but rushed the response as I was at work. A solution to cater for IE’s inadequacies would be to revert to fixed-width for IE, overridden with a conditional expression (using scripting) for those with scripting enabled.

    Can you clarify your reference to “rivers of white”? Does that mean that there should be large swathes of whitespace between distinct blocks of content, or that you should avoid rivers of white?

    The term ‘rivers of white’ refers to the extra whitespace rendered when text is left and right justified, leaving patterns of whitespace in the text. Some people find the extra whitespace distracting, and some may find it impossible to read. Rivers of white should be avoided by not using fully-justified text.

  6. Kev March 8, 2005 at 19:40 #

    Gez – its not my terminology, its terminology used by the autistic community to describe themselves. Its very, very important that people realise this:

    Autism isn’t something a person has, or a “shell” that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person–and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.

    http://www.autistics.org/library/dontmourn.html

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