What if you had to build software for undiagnosed adults that suffer from autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia, ADHD etc.

Software today is definitely getting more and more user experience focused, that is to say we are preoccupied with getting the minimal designs into the hands of adults for task driven operations. We pride ourselves on knowing how the human mind works through various blog based theories on how one is to design the user interface and what the likely hood of the adult behind the computers initial reaction will be.

The amount of conferences I’ve personally attended that has a person or person(s) on stage touting the latest and greatest in cognitive science buzz word bingo followed by best practices in software design is well, too many.

On a personal level, my son has a rare chromosome disorder called Trisomy 8, its quite an unexplored condition and I’ve pretty much spent the last eight years interacting with medical professions that touch on not just the psychology of humans but zeros in on the way in which our brains form over time.

In the last eight years of my research I have learnt quite a lot about how the human mind works specifically on how we react to information and more importantly our abilities to cope with change that aren’t just about our environments but also plays a role in Software.

I’ve personally read research papers that explore the impacts of society’s current structure on future generations and more importantly how our macro and micro environments play a role with regards to the children of tomorrow coping with change and learning at the same time – that is to say, we adults cope with the emerging technology advancements because for us “its about time” but for todays child of 5-8 this is a huge problem around having to manifest coping skills to dealing with a fluid technology adoption that often doesn’t make sense.

Yesterday we didn’t have NUI, today we do? Icons that have a 3.5” floppy disc that represent “saving” have no meaning to my son etc.

The list goes on just how rapid and fast we are changing our environments and more importantly how adults that haven’t formulated the necessary social skills to realistically control the way in which our children are parented often rely on technology as at times being the de-facto teacher or leader (Amount of insights I’ve read on how XBOX 360 has become the baby sitter in households is scary).

Getting back to the topic at hand, that is what if the people you are designing software have an undiagnosed mental illness or are better yet diagnosed. How would you design tomorrow’s user interface to cope with this dramatic new piece of evidence? To you the minimal design works, it seems fresh and clear and has definitive boundaries established.

To an adult suffering from Type-6 ADHD (if you believe in it) that has a degree of over-focus its not enough, in fact it could have the opposite effect of what you are trying to do in your design composition.

Autism also has a role, grid formation in design would obviously appeal to their autistic traits given it’s a pattern that they can lock onto and can often agree with – Asperger sufferers may disagree with it, and could annoy or irritate them in some way (colour choice, too much movement blah blah).

Who has to say your designs work, as if you ask people on the street a series of questions and observe their reactions you are not really providing an insight into how the human mind reacts to computer interaction. You’ve automatically failed in a clinical trial, as the person on the street isn’t just a normal adult there’s a whole pedigree of historical information you’re not factoring into the study that is relevant.

At the end of the day, the real heart of HCI for this and is my working theory is that we formulate our expectations around software design from our own personal development. That is to say, if we as children had normal or above average IQ level in around about ability to understand patterns and the ability to cope with change we in turn are more likely to adapt to both “well design” and “poorly designed” software.

That is to say, when you sit down and think about an Adult and how they react to tomorrow’s software one has to really think about the journey the adult has taken to arrive at this point, more to the point how easily they are also influenced.

A child who came from broken home, parents left and raised by other adults who is now a receptionist within a company is more likely to have absolutely no confidence in around making decisions. That person is now an easy mark for someone who has the opposite and can easily sway this person to adoption and change.

Put those two people into a clinical trial around how the next piece of software you are going to roll out for a company works and the various tests you put them through, watch what happens.

Most tests in UX / HCI often focus on the ability of the candidate to make their way through the digital maze in order to get the cheese (basic principles around reward / recognition) so to be fair its really about how the human mind can navigate a series of patterns to arrive at a result (positive / negative) and then furthermore how the said humans can recall that information at a later date (memory recall meets muscle memory).

These style of results will tell I guess the amount of friction associated with your change, and give you a score / credit in around what the impact it will likely have but in reality what you really probably need to do as an industry is zero in on how aggressively you can decrease the friction levels associated with change prior to the person arriving at the console.

How do you get Jenny the receptionist who came from an abused child hood enough confidence to tackle a product like Autodesk Maya (which is largely complex) as if you were to sit down with Jenny and learn that she also has a creative component to her that’s not obvious to all – its her way of medicating the abuse through design.

How do you get Jack the stock broker who spends most of his time jacked on speed/coke and caffeine to focus long enough to read the information in front of him through data visualisation metaphors / methodologies then the decisions he makes could impact the future of the global financial system(s) world wide (ok bit extreme but you get my point?)

It’s amazing how much we as a software industry associate normal from abnormal when it comes to software design. It is also amazing how we look at our personas in the design process and attach the basic “this is mike, he likes facebook” fluffy profiling. When what you may find even more interesting is that Mike may like facebook, but in his down time he likes to put fireworks in cats butts and set them on fire because he has this weird fascination with making things suffer – which is probably why Mike now runs ORACLE’s user experience program.

The persona in my view is simply the design team having a massive dose of confirmation bias as when you sit down and read research paper after research paper on how a child sees the world that later helps define him/her as an adult, well…. In my view, my designs take on a completely new shift in thinking in around how I approach them.

My son has been tested numerous times and has been given an IQ of around 135 which depending on how you look at it puts him in around the genius level. The problem though is my son can’t focus or pays full attention to things and relies heavily on patterns to speed through tasks but at the same time he’s not aware of how he did it.

Imagine designing software for him. I do, daily and have to help him figure out life, it just has taught me so much in the process.

Metro UI vs Apple OS 5..pft, don’t get me started on this subject as both have an amazing insight into pro’s and con’s.

Related Posts:

  • http://www.facebook.com/dvroegop Dennis Vroegop

    Great post! I see what you mean, and we work on this kind of stuff daily. To be more precise: we create software that helps people in diagnosing autism with children. In order to have this software work we have to make sure the subjects (children in the age range between 5 and 12) have to be able to understand what’s going on.
    We use Microsoft Surface for this, so having a clear and easy to use UI is extremely important, especially for this group. The thing is, that since we started doing is I noticed that I have changed my approach to designing UI’s in general. What is important for a kid with autism is also important to the “average” user (which doesn’t exists).

  • http://twitter.com/MossyBlog Scott Barnes

    Exactly! .. as children with autism are exceptionally smart at times, really big exciting IQ’s and Adults aren’t different so in a way their minds age fast and aggressively thus their information processing index is brilliant… downside is we tend to write software as if this human being that has great eye sight, hearing and processing / pattern index recognition is above normal when in fact its not.

    I’d wager this is why you see a variety of UI work vs don’t.. 

    Dennis. I’d love to see some of that UI you have worked on, please share! :)