Does your website provide a pleasant experience for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?
October is ADHD Awareness Month, a great time to think about the importance of cognitive accessibility. The best practices of accessible design can make internet content more useful for people with ADHD and other conditions — and as we’ve discussed in other articles, digital accessibility has enormous benefits for everyone, regardless of their abilities or preferences.
In this article, we’ll provide an overview of how ADHD may affect browsing behavior, then highlight a few ways to improve your content. For more guidance, send us a message to connect with a digital accessibility expert.
What is ADHD, and how does it affect internet users?
ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders worldwide. It affects about 6.1 million children in the United States alone, and while about 75% of U.S. children with ADHD receive some form of treatment, the condition often lasts into adulthood.
The signs of ADHD vary from person to person. Some common ADHD symptoms include:
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing.
- Excessive talking and physical movement.
- Acting without thinking (impulsiveness).
- Constantly changing from one task to another.
- Difficulty organizing tasks.
For many people with ADHD, the internet can be an intimidating place. If you have difficulty focusing, a colorful website with dozens of interactive elements can be overwhelming.
ADHD can affect browsing preferences in an endless number of ways
Internet users with ADHD may adjust their browser settings to limit color or to enforce certain fonts, which may make text easier to read. Some people use screen magnifiers or “zoom in” (scale) content to read one paragraph at a time. Others simply avoid websites that have overstimulating content.
When you think about the needs and expectations of users with disabilities when designing your website, you can provide all users with a better experience. Remember, digital accessibility doesn’t just mean providing accommodations for Deaf users or people with vision disabilities — neurocognitive differences are an important part of the conversation.
Tips for Creating Accessible Content for People with ADHD
Every person has different abilities, and it’s impossible to develop a website that works perfectly for every individual. However, you can improve user experiences for people with ADHD by following the best practices of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the worldwide standards for digital accessibility.
Below, we’ve highlighted a few ideas from WCAG that may be especially helpful when creating content for users with cognitive differences.
1. Make your website predictable
WCAG Guideline 3.2, “Predictable,” is one of the basic principles of digital accessibility. It requires developers to “make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.” Simple, right?
Unfortunately, many websites fail to follow this guideline by making simple mistakes — and in most cases, those mistakes could be fixed with a small amount of effort. For example:
- A website launches a pop-up or notifications when an element receives focus.
- A web form submits automatically when the user fills out the last form field without notifying the user.
- A website’s navigation menu disappears on certain pages, and users cannot return to the previous page without using their browser’s “back" button.
- Content updates automatically without notifying the user.
Each of these issues can cause unnecessary confusion for people who have difficulty concentrating or organizing their thoughts — and each issue is also an example of poor web design. By prioritizing predictability, you can avoid these types of mistakes.
2. Write clear, specific instructions
WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 3.3.2, “Labels or Instructions,” requires websites to provide labels and/or instructions when content requires user input. For example, web forms should have clear instructions and accurate labels for each form field.
Unambiguous instructions help all users, but as WCAG notes, labels and instructions are particularly important for those with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities.
Some quick tips:
- If a form field requires data in a certain format (for instance, a date field that requires “day/month/year"), provide examples.
- Instruction text should appear at the beginning of the form. If the instructions appear at the end of the form, some users may not notice them.
- Forms and other interactive elements should also have accurate HTML or ARIA labels, which improve experiences for people who use assistive technologies.
3. Avoid putting time limits on interactions
People who have attention-deficit disorders are more likely to develop anxiety, and time limits — while sometimes essential — can cause problems for these users. Individuals with ADHD may need more time to complete certain interactions, and the presence of a time limit can trigger anxiety in some users.
WCAG SC 2.2.1, “Timing Adjustable,” requires that time limits can be turned off, adjusted, or extended. This criterion has exceptions for certain situations (for example, if the time limit is part of a realtime event), but in general, the best practice is to avoid time limits entirely where possible. If you must use time limits, provide clear notifications and give users as much control as possible.
4. Don’t use autoplay
If you’re trying to read a webpage, loud videos and flashing animated content probably won’t help you concentrate. For people with attention-deficit disorders, this type of content can be especially obnoxious.
Of course, most users hate autoplay, so the best practice is to avoid using it. That includes moving product carousels, product demonstration videos, and anything else that activates automatically as the user browses your website.
If you absolutely must use autoplay, make sure you provide users with a way to turn it off. This fulfills WCAG SC 2.2.2, “Pause, Stop, Hide,” and it enables users to browse without unnecessary distractions.
5. Use a clean layout that minimizes distractions
WCAG doesn’t prohibit websites from using dozens of interactive controls, bright colors, or dozens of links. However, simple designs tend to be more accessible, and they’re usually more appealing to real-life users.
For example, Wikipedia uses black text on a white background with consistent, intuitive menus. Few internet users would complain about Wikipedia’s aesthetic.
In fact, the Wikimedia Foundation refreshed Wikipedia’s design in 2021, but we bet that most users didn’t notice — and that refresh focused on simplifying the site’s functionality, not expanding its features with new bells and whistles.
By maintaining a clean layout, you can keep users engaged and avoid overwhelming them with information. That’s particularly useful for people with ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurocognitive conditions, but once again, every user benefits.
Start building an accessible website by following WCAG
If you’re new to the concepts of digital accessibility, you can learn quite a bit by reading through WCAG and testing your content against WCAG success criteria.
We’re here to help: The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers free resources for improving conformance, including our WCAG 2.1 Level AA automated website analysis. For guidance with specific web accessibility issues, send us a message.