4 Principles for Designing Websites for Users with Memory Impairments

August 16, 2021

Memory impairments are fairly common among internet users, particularly in older adults. In one CDC study, 12.7 percent of adults aged 60 or older reported age-related memory issues, and the CDC identifies subjective cognitive decline as a growing public health issue.

To accommodate these users, website designers and developers need to avoid interactions that rely on memory. That’s easier said than done. Human memory issues are covered under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but as the guidelines note:

... Even content that conforms at the highest level (AAA) will not be accessible to individuals with all types, degrees, or combinations of disability, particularly in the cognitive language and learning areas.

In other words, even when designers take proper considerations to create accessible web pages, people with some cognitive impairments may have issues using the content in an intuitive way. People with memory impairments might be able to use a site, but if unnecessary barriers prevent them from using it easily, the site isn’t truly accessible for those users. 

This highlights a key component of the internet accessibility philosophy: Accessibility isn’t just about marking off items on a checklist. To build a truly accessible website, developers need to put real people first. That means sourcing feedback from users, testing the site regularly, and looking for opportunities for improvement.

With that said, designers and developers can start to accommodate users with memory-related impairments by keeping the following points in mind:

  • Keep content simple and engaging. Per WCAG Guideline 3.1, content should be readable and understandable. This is a fairly broad rule — and implementing it properly requires some strategy.

First, use simple language wherever possible, taking your audience into account. The Flesch-Kincaid test is one of the most popular metrics for measuring readability and can be useful for analyzing longer content (this blog, for example, is written at an average grade level of about 13, per Flesch-Kincaid, and should be easily understood by most 18 to 19 year olds). Other readability tests can be found on the WCAG Understanding Reading Level page.

However, readability tools can’t give a complete assessment of every page. Look at your content and make sure that it flows naturally. If you use industry-specific terms, make sure they’re clearly defined. People with short-term memory issues can navigate a site more easily if they don’t need to re-read and re-analyze terminology.

The Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP) recommends avoiding jargon, abbreviation, broad or general phrases, and terminology that may be off-putting or confusing for people with memory issues. Use specific words with clear meanings.

  • Give users time to use the site. People with cognitive impairments may need more time to read instructions, complete forms, and interact with your site in other ways. Getting forced away from a page can be frustrating — particularly if the site doesn’t give a clear indication of what’s happening.

    Per WCAG Guideline 2.2 (“Enough Time"), if users will encounter a time limit, make sure to provide them with the ability to turn off or adjust the timer. Along the same line, allow users to pause content that moves, blinks, or scrolls.

    Many forms have time limits for practical reasons. Wherever possible, keep forms simple, intuitive, and error-proof, with safeguards that allow users to review and approve information before it’s submitted.
  • Make sure content is adaptable. Per WCAG Guideline 1.3, content should be adaptable without losing information or functionality. Users should be able to interact with each page in the same way regardless of whether they’re accessing the site on mobile, desktop, or with a device that uses specialized resolutions.

    Remember, some people with cognitive impairments use text-to-speech programs, as they may be more adept at processing information when hearing it. Make sure that your site uses appropriate HTML attributes to make content parsable for screen readers (check out our blog on screen readers for more info).
  • Make site navigation easy. Per WCAG Guideline 3.2, you should ensure that web pages “appear and operate in predictable ways.” Predictability can be somewhat subjective, but a consistent site design will benefit all users — not just people with disabilities.

Users process information differently, and people with memory impairments may not navigate your page in the same ways as other users. Make sure your readers don’t have to scroll through the entire page to find instructions, definitions, or other important information. Give users options for accessing information; some people might prefer to navigate through a table of contents, for instance, while others might use a search bar.

To that end, use headers, navigation bars, alternative text, and button labels consistently throughout your site. Limit the number of elements on each page and distinguish them clearly. Keep navigation elements predictable and repeat important information throughout each page.

When a page needs to convey a lot of information, divide the experience into more steps, remembering to give users plenty of time to process each part of the experience. However, avoid unnecessary redirections — and if you do need to redirect users, explain to them that they’re being redirected. For example, if a user misses an entry on a form, highlight the missing entry and provide text explaining why it’s necessary.

For a more detailed overview of these suggestions, visit Mozilla Developer Network’s Web Docs page on cognitive accessibility.

Remember, every site functions differently, and to create a truly accessible website, you’ll need to think about the real people using the site during every stage of development. What works for one site might not work for another — but a user-first mindset will help you make appropriate decisions.

Web accessibility isn’t an add-on feature, it’s part of a healthy development strategy. Be ready to take a step back and look at your site from the perspective of a user who has a cognitive disability. While designing for people with memory impairments can seem overwhelming at first, a consistent approach will allow for a site that works better for all visitors.

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