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Home ›› Accessibility ›› Designing Inclusive and Sensory-Friendly UX for Neurodiverse Audiences

Designing Inclusive and Sensory-Friendly UX for Neurodiverse Audiences

by Eleanor Hecks
6 min read
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User experience (UX) design must consider the varied needs of all audience members. Accessibility in design matters for those with visual or physical differences. However, one thing designers sometimes fail to consider is neurodiverse people.

Neurodiverse audiences may include those on the autism spectrum, ADHD, dyslexia and other neurological differences. Creating a digital experience that speaks to everyone is crucial for any UX designer. Minor adjustments can make the site a pleasant experience for all.

Study Neurodiversity

If you’re working toward inclusivity in your designs, you must study neurodiversity to understand how designs can impact portions of your audience. While experts disagree on a definition of neurodiversity, the word is a broad category that defines the variety in human brains and how people process information.

It’s estimated that between 15% and 20% of the global population is neurodiverse. On a given day, at least a few people who fall into the category visit your website. People considered neurodivergent include those with:

  • Autism
  • Dyscalculia 
  • Dyslexia 
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Developmental speech disorders 
  • Dyspraxia 
  • Dysgraphia 
  • Dysnomia 
  • Tourette syndrome 
  • Intellectual disability

Anyone who processes information uniquely or has sensitivity to sensory input may fall into this category. Take the time to study neurodiversity and how it impacts those with conditions so you can apply your knowledge to designs. The better you understand how a neurodivergent person sees the world, the more easily you can design a site they can utilize. In turn, you may even reduce your bounce rates and increase conversions.

How a Neurodiverse User Responds Differently to Sensory Input

Because neurodivergent site visitors process sensory input differently, the way you approach design becomes crucial to their website experience. Sensory intensity can impact any of the senses, but sound is one of the most common triggers.

Also called hyperacusis, 37% to 69% of autistic individuals live with the sensitivity. Although there is less research on ADHD and sounds, initial studies show children with ADHD have higher rates of sound sensitivity than neurotypical ones.

Not all sensitivity is related to sound — every person’s brain is unique. Some avoid websites with jarring colors, flashing lights and moving parts. One thing UX designers can do is create focus groups of different types of target audience members and see how they respond to various design elements.

UX Design Considerations for All Audiences

Once you understand why some people avoid certain design choices, it becomes easier to design for all users. The 1970s psychedelic vibe might speak to a brand’s personality, but toning it down a bit and adding some white space means those dealing with visual overload can enjoy the site, too.

Since sound is one of the biggest triggers for someone with a neurological disability, be aware of the music and noise levels in videos. Here are some things to consider as you design for an excellent UX for all.

Sensitive to Sensory Input (Light, Color, Sound, Clutter)

As you create your designs, think about the different types of sensory clutter that might make the site harder for some or all visitors to view. For example, having enough contrast between the text and background impacts the accessibility of your site.

Consider if there is too much clutter. Do you need to cut anything to clarify what the page’s goal is? Does sound automatically play? Not only might it impact the UX for neurodivergent users, but it could irritate neurotypicals who are trying to watch a video at work or in a public space.

If designing the site’s backend for employees or a special section, include them in your considerations. Remember — anywhere from 5% to 20% of employees could face challenges with the senses. Taking the time to ensure you’ve considered all needs makes them feel seen and heard. If they feel valued, they’re more likely to stay longer, reducing churn.

Ambiguity and Shooting Straight

Some on the autistic spectrum find it difficult to interpret ambiguity. They may have to work harder than a neurotypical person to read body language and facial expressions, and might read things literally. For this reason, avoid jokes and sarcastic comments someone could take more than one way.

Focus on concise language with a single meaning. If there are two ways to take a phrase, find another way to say the same thing but clarify it.

Flexibility

Neurodivergence presents itself in many ways. Every human has different needs and complexities, so embrace flexibility in your designs. Create the ability to customize whenever possible. You may even want to allow users to swap out color patterns.

Some designers even let people hide elements or move the layout around. You will have to work with more coding elements to allow people to customize the design to their preferences, but you should also increase the stickiness of your site.

Elements to Include in a Neurodiverse Design

How can you embrace an all-inclusive design that works for someone who is neurodiverse as well as for someone who is neurotypical?

Reduce Clutter and Busyness 

Since those with ADHD and autism often feel overwhelmed by too much visual or audio noise, look for ways to reduce the extra clutter on the page. Anything that doesn’t move the user toward a singular goal must be moved elsewhere or deleted.

If a page has too many elements on it, consider splitting it into multiple pages to make the UX more relaxed. If you offer an app feature through your pages, pay attention to the user interface — does it function as it should? Is there anything that might distract from the program’s purpose?

Offer Customization 

When you allow users to customize colors, fonts and other elements, make the customization feature easy to find. It isn’t much help if they have to hunt for the option. You could even add text letting the user know they can adjust the colors, fonts and other elements on the page to their liking. A pop-up box may be another option to inform them of how to change the page to work best for them.

Simplify Language 

Make the language straightforward and easy for all to understand. Ambiguous phrasing must go. Utilize tools such as Grammarly and Hemingway to ensure you’re speaking to users at a reading level that matches the average person. If something is too complex, simplify it so everyone can understand.

According to the Literacy Project, 45 million Americans read at a fifth-grade level or below. Hemingway gives a grade equivalent of any content and lets you know if you need to further simplify language for readability.

Shorten any long sentences by taking away complicated words the average reader might not understand. Make sure you write in the active voice, as passive is harder to comprehend for many. Tweak the language until it works for all reading levels.

No Auto-Play 

Noise and videos might trigger anxiety in some individuals. While a video helps engage users, never set them to play automatically on your site. It’s best to let people play them as they want.

A neurodivergent person might feel jolted if the video starts on its own. However, if they can prepare themselves for the video to start and click the button, they avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Use a Text Hierarchy 

Neurodivergent brains often appreciate a sense of order. The design has to make sense — the text and navigation should have a predictable and reliable hierarchy.

Choosing sans serif typefaces helps those with dyslexia. Some of the best fonts are Arial, Open Sans, Lato and Verdana. Many designers hate Comic Sans, but it is a dyslexia-friendly option.

Larger fonts with a slightly bolded appearance help those with vision impairments more easily access your pages. You can also increase the kerning — the spacing between letters — a bit to help those with dyslexia better differentiate between letters.

Choose Soft Colors

Many autistic and other neurodiverse people are sensitive to stimulation. Studies show some autistic children might feel overwhelmed by bright shades — neutral tones seem to be most beneficial in calming them. However, every individual responds differently, so providing options is your best bet.

Designing Sensory-Friendly Pages

Neurodiversity can appear in many ways. By taking that into account, designers can create an amazing experience for every site visitor. Consider every part of the page and how it might impact different people, and adjust the UX to keep it sensory friendly.

post authorEleanor Hecks

Eleanor Hecks, Eleanor is the editorial manager at Designerly. She’s also a mobile app designer with a focus on user interface. Connect with her about digital marketing, UX or tea on LinkedIn.

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Ideas In Brief
  • The article emphasizes the necessity of inclusive UX design for neurodiverse audiences, detailing practical adjustments and strategies to create sensory-friendly and accessible digital experiences.

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