Episode 84: Neurodiversity and User Experience with Kalina Tyrkiel | Salesforce Developers Podcast

Kalina Tyrkiel is a user experience writer in Poland. Though she is not a part of our Salesforce community, she does use her background in psychology to write content about neurodiversity and how it impacts user experience design. 

In this episode, we discuss some of the ins and outs all of us must think about when it comes to accessibility. This includes some of the different ways we need to build out our interfaces when considering the neurodivergent. Tune in to learn more.

Show Highlights

  • What neurodiversity is and how broad neurodivergent symptoms can be.
  • Some accessibility guidelines for typography.
  • Why plain language is one of the biggest allies for neurodiverse user groups.
  • Why metaphors can be confusing for many people.
  • How to create neurodiverse user-friendly buttons.
  • How colors and animation impact a neurodiverse user.
  • Why closed captions are good and autoplay is bad when considering neurodiverse users.
  • Resources to help you improve the accessibility of your pages.

Links

Sources

    • W3C notes on creating content for people with cognitive and learning disabilities
    • LexAble – solutions for neurodiverse users

Related Tools

Episode Transcript

Kalina Tyrkiel:
… and I’d like to say I’m a psychologist by training and a UX writer by trade, and both of these fields kind of effect each other.

Josh Birk:
That is Kalina Tyrkiel, a user experience writer over in Poland. I’m Josh Birk, your host for the Salesforce Developer podcast, and here on the podcast, you’ll hear stories and insights from developers for developers. However, today we actually go down a slightly different route. Kalina is not in our Salesforce Developer community; however, she does use her background in psychology to author content about neuro-diversity, and how it impacts user experience design.

Josh Birk:
So sit down with me and Kalina where we talk about some of the ins and outs to think about when it comes to accessibility, and building out your interfaces for the neurodivergent. However, we start with her early years and specifically talking about chatbots.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. So my thesis was about chatbots. The chatbots I used for the thesis, were pretty simple. They were all no code, made by myself. So obviously I worked with developers in my day-to-day work, but these were all [inaudible 00:01:12] and the factors were like, for example, the tone the chatbots use, the time, the intervals, when it comes to answers, like where there were things that will think, that will make the chatbots more human, what influence the satisfaction? And what turned out to be, is that actually people don’t like it when the chatbots are too human, when they fall into this uncanny valley, let’s say.

Josh Birk:
Really?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this effect wasn’t very, very strong, but there was something to… When the chatbots, they are overly enthusiastic, people tend to be a little bit suspicious, and even… They feel weird. They feel like something’s off. So, yeah.

Josh Birk:
Really? So it’s kind of like a reverse Turing test. If people can tell that maybe the chatbot’s trying to game them a little bit, it freaks them out? Yeah.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. You could say that, definitely. I was thinking a lot about the Turing test and about this experiment, I think uncanny valley is what’s really crossed my mind multiple times when writing it. The uncanny valley effect, but more on the conversational level. So that was interesting and something worth looking into more.

Josh Birk:
Nice, nice. That’s fascinating. Okay, so our main topic today is something that I’m going to confess, it’s very personal to me. I have a lot of friends and family who are on the spectrum. And then if we take that definition to the broader category of neurodiversity, there’s even a lot more people. So you’ve written a lot of neurodiversity and how it impacts user experience, or I suppose technically the other way around. First, how would you define neurodiversity?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah, so like to start with, I’d really like the idea of neurodiversity, the fact that it focuses on your strengths about what makes you different, and what can make you just different, without categorizing it as good or bad. Because I’m not really a fan of this pathogenetic approach about defining what makes something a pathology or a deficit. And sometimes what makes you neurodiverse, can even be considered as an advantage. I think one of the most popular example is Greta Thunberg. She’s diagnosed with Asperger’s and she went as far as calling it a superpower when under the right circumstances.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
So this is like a whole new view. And even the term neurodiversity, it’s pretty fresh. I think it was coined somewhere in the 1990s. So it’s only been a few decades. And they are neurodiversity advocates, so Tim Goldstein, he’s experienced in tech, he’s a person who’s very neurodiversity advocate, a communication specialist. And he heard that something about him was different, and he only found out he was diagnosed as neurodiverse, as someone on the spectrum, when he was 54. So that was super, super late.

Josh Birk:
Yeah.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
What is very important about neurodiversity, is that you can say that only 1% people are autistic, if you may. But it is estimated, and it’s still believed to be quite a conservative estimate, that actually around 15% of the global population, is somewhere on the neurodiversity spectrum. And it’s not only in autism, it’s not that it’s just autism spectrum. And there’s more to that. There’s dyslexia, which is believed to be… I know the numbers for Poland, which is my home country, it’s believed to be 10%, so it translates to 4 million, roughly, which is a lot.

Josh Birk:
Oh wow, yeah.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. And there’s also attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is ADHD, and other kinds of being neurodiverse, that are not always equal to autism. And they can manifest in many different ways.

Josh Birk:
Yeah. I think that’s an important part of it. Well, how broad of a category is this? What’s what falls under neuro-diversity?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. So it can apply to many different, as I said, like many, many different categories, many different… It can manifest in many ways, like it can apply to perception, to how we perceive the world. It can apply to memory. People who are neurodiverse, they can be very, very good at remembering certain things, and not so good when it comes to others. It also applies to how they process language, for instance. It’s one of the most common examples, that people on the autism spectrum, they have quite a hard time with metaphors.

Josh Birk:
Got you.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Metaphors can be… Yeah, that can be problematic when they don’t understand the meaning behind them. And it also applies obviously to attention, which is quite prevalent in ADHD. And all sorts of committee functions, to be honest. And it can even when you just have one autistic person, it can show in a very different way than when you compare it to another autistic person. So it’s very, very personal.

Josh Birk:
Got it, got it. Well, I think it’s interesting. This overlaps an episode I did with Adam [Bronebeck 00:06:37], who’s an accessibility specialist here at Salesforce. And he was the first one who’s like, “Accessibility includes these things, including people that fall in this category.” Because this isn’t necessarily a special situation, right? This all falls under accessibility, right?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yes, absolutely. And I believe many of these accessibility guidelines, accessibility standards, like the standards described by WCAG and all these institutions that do a tremendous job when it comes to spreading awareness and creating the standards for accessibility. All of these things are universal. A lot of this accessibility guidelines apply to neurodiverse users as well, but there are some things obviously that are quite specific when it comes to the neurodiverse user group.

Josh Birk:
Got you. Okay, so let’s talk about a few of those specifics. You write about a series of categories to focus on. Let’s go down some of that. First is typography. What are some pitfalls that people can fall in there?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. So when it comes to typography, one of the most important things to keep in mind, is to keep the font sans-serif, which is… Especially the body text. And this is quite a common choice when it comes to web design nowadays. It’s considered standard when it comes to creating websites currently.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
But it’s also worth remembering that we need to keep a separation distance between the letters, and the kerning shouldn’t be too close to each other. And so when it comes to specific numbers, I think it’s just good to remember the number 3.5 and 35, because 35% kerning is the ideal letter width. And the inter-word spacing, the space between the words, should be at least 3.5 times bigger than the width. So these are just some of the basic rules to remember. Anyway, we just need to keep in mind not to keep the letters too close to each other, basically.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And when it comes to the sizes, it’s also about the font size, which also applies to people with visual impairments, to people… Like myself, for example. I think if you work in tech, and if you spend a fair share of your life in front of the computer, you might have a vision impairment.

Josh Birk:
Right.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
So this is quite common. And it was also suggested that, well, the font size should be between 12 and 14 points. So this is considered standard. This is also something to keep in mind. And when it comes to typefaces itself, it’s actually quite… Well, I like this fun fact a lot, so I’m going to mention it as well. Although Comic Sans might not be the aesthetic goal you might aim for, it’s actually quite dyslexia-friendly. And people with dyslexia will actually like it a lot. It will make their life easier. And I checked with some of my… I mean, it’s not statistically significant evidence, but I asked my dyslexic friends, and they agreed. So there’s something to it.

Josh Birk:
Okay. So I have a lot of designer friends, so I can’t be on the mic recommending Comic Sans necessarily, but that’s hilarious, but also very interesting. So what specifically… Is Comic Sans something that people can learn from, because it’s a high watermark?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. I’m thinking it was designed for learning. It’s very, very easy to read, even if it’s resized. And there’s something to it when it comes to differentiating the letters. It’s very easy to tell apart D and B or P and Q. And it’s very obvious. And when you have like serif fonts, then it… Especially on the screens, it can get a bit harder. So this is what makes sans-serif typefaces a much better choice when it comes to designing for the neurodiverse user groups.

Josh Birk:
Got it. Nice. Nice. Okay, so how the words appear is important, but also talking about the words themselves, you write that, “Plain language is one of the greatest allies of neurodiversity.” What do you mean by that?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
I believe plain language is one of the greatest allies of good design in general. And I believe it’s also in terms of neurodiversity, it’s a crucial. Because it decreases the tension, and it also decreases the cognitive overload. Plain language makes the information easy to access. I think it’s also about decreasing the amount of things on a website, in general. It’s about removing everything that’s unnecessary, and just showing the crucial information. Because when you read interviews with neurodiverse users, when you hear them speaking about their experience, they say what is most frustrating, is going through websites that just have too much of everything. It’s like trying to find out the main points.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And one thing that really seems surprising to me, was an interview of an autistic user I once read. And she said that… Really, this is like Twitter, because Twitter is just packed with words, and the whole architecture is just so overwhelming, that she can’t really get through it without frustration.

Josh Birk:
Yeah. No, that’s an excellent example, because I even find Twitter overwhelming from time to time. So it is, I think it’s been called the fire hose of information, and not by accident. You were mentioning earlier, metaphors and how that can be tricky. What are some specifics there? What’s what are some pitfalls?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. So I think it’s also important when it comes to writing for people who are not native English speakers, like myself… I think my level of English is good enough to understand some of the most common metaphors, but it’s still… When you write for a big social media platform, let’s say, not all of them are going to be able to understand something that’s perfectly obvious for a native speaker. And same applies to neurodiverse users, like when you call it a day, they might kind of understand you’re actually like calling it a day, literally.

Josh Birk:
And literally like, “That thing’s a day.”

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah, exactly. And it doesn’t make them less intelligent, it’s just, they process it in a different way. And when you have very, very important, crucial parts of the user journey, it’s much safer and much more accessible to just say that something is done.

Josh Birk:
Got it. Got it. So let’s talk a little bit about specific kinds of texts. For instance, you write about the differences between good user-friendly button text, and bad user-friendly button text. What are some distinctions there?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. As a designer, or as a developer, you might be tempted to write something like, “Click here.” Just a general button text, and it might seem just very direct, like it just says, “Click here.” So the user knows exactly what they are supposed to do. And it’s not always exact like that. And I think one of the best examples, is when you look at it from the perspective of a screen reader, when you have a screen reader, sometimes it just grabs on the links from a website and creates a list of them. And then you have a list of all Click Here’s, several Click Here’s in the row. So you lose track of what’s in there.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And so this is one way in which it’s completely not accessible, and it’s also not accessible for neurodiverse users, and not accessible in general. Because you don’t tell exactly what’s going to happen when you click something. You just say, “Click Here.” And this is why it’s better to say what exactly it’s going to happen when you click on this particular button. So if it’s for uploading images, you just say, “Upload images.” Or if it’s for downloading an ebook, you just say “Download the ebook.”

Josh Birk:
Got you.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Because you just say, clearly, what’s going to happen next.

Josh Birk:
So as a developer / designer, ask yourself what’s going to happen in this button if it’s completely detached from where you put it on the page.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Exactly. Exactly. Make a list, goes like sneak peek of what’s going to happen next.

Josh Birk:
Got it, got it. And speaking of buttons, what’s the importance of iconography when it comes to associating with those buttons, and I guess the interface in general?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah, that’s another very important point. When you need to convey some information, it’s better if you convey it in at least two different ways. For example, when you have a button that goes to Cart, in an e-commerce website, you can use the icon of a cart, and just write Cart on the button. So you use two different means to convey the information, use the icon and use the text. And it’s much easier for the user to understand what is this button supposed to do. And same goes also for names of categories in the navigation.

Josh Birk:
Yeah. And is that because it provides more context, or because it’s giving a backup route to understand what’s going on there, or both?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
I would say both. And it gives you two clues. You have two things that confirm that this is doing what this is doing. So you have two things to make sure that you’re in the right place.

Josh Birk:
Got it, got it. Okay, so talking about the page in general, how can colors impact a neurodiverse user?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah, so this is the part when you can fall into a trap of… You want to get the contrast right, you want really good contrast, but you can also go over the top and go and choose some very bright neon colors. And these colors, even despite our good intentions, they can lead to sensory overstimulation. Especially in autistic users. And it’s really different, depending on personal preferences of these users. Like some of my friends who are on the autism spectrum, they really have different preferences, but overall it’s better to stick to softer, milder colors. But still pay attention to the contrast. So the contrast needs to be sufficient for the text to remain easy to read, but also not too bright, to avoid overstimulation.

Josh Birk:
Got it. Okay. And are there specific colors that fall into a bad camp or a good camp? Is it really just that contrast versus brightness versus loudness, I guess I would say?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah, the saturation, yeah. So I would avoid very high saturation. And when it comes to research, some groups were researching different ranges of colors with children on the spectrum, and they found out that blue and green hues were preferred, but this is not like it’s going to work for every person. It’s just like a tendency. It’s there, but it can be very different when it comes to personal preferences.

Josh Birk:
Got you.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Anyway, I think it’s just best to stick soft and milder colors to make it not too loud. [crosstalk 00:18:20]

Josh Birk:
Got it, yeah.

Josh Birk:
Got it. And what happens when we start moving these colors around, what should we consider when something’s being animated?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Well, when it comes to animation, there’s also another very important point. Well, the first thing is, we shouldn’t just jump out with animations with auto-play, or with stimulation just out of the blue, if you don’t expect it. When it comes to people with attention deficit, it might distract them. It might just make them forget what they were supposed to do, and get them completely off the track.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And when it comes to people with the autism spectrum, this may just trigger anxiety, and this may just become even traumatic for some. So any animation that’s not announced before, it’s just like a jumping video might be really, really harmful. So this is something that we should really be careful with. Even if we are not neurodiverse, you might end up surprised. So imagine this, but more intensified. It’s like having a tab with music playing out of nowhere and you have no idea where it comes from. So it’s that, but more intense.

Josh Birk:
So don’t do the user design version of a jump scare.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Exactly. You could call that a jump scare, completely.

Josh Birk:
Nice. Okay, so in that same vein, you have a couple of recommendations for video. And I agree with this just across the board, but auto-play is bad, closed captions are good. But why is that true for a neurodiverse audience?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
I think it’s the same idea as with putting both icons and descriptions on buttons, you have two different ways to convey meaning. So at times it might be easier to focus on the subtitles, at times might be easier to focus on the sound, on the images. And it’s just easier for them to understand the point of the video, if you have different ways of conveying the same information.

Josh Birk:
Got it, got it. And I personally find… I guess we also have… There’s almost a repeat there, right? Auto-play could turn itself into a jump scare, right?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. And it’s sometimes just purely frustrating. And if you add the anxiety part to it, and all the other unpleasant things, it can become just a nightmare. So yeah.

Josh Birk:
Yeah. Because I mean, when I’m reading something and then all of a sudden the ad plays at the top of the page, that easily one of my top 10 pet peeves. It drives me crazy. And if anything, I just stopped reading and close the tab and go away.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. And you’re saying this, from a perspective of, let’s say, a non-neurodiverse user, I believe. And just imagine this, but more intensified, and triggering all your anxieties, and the things that are your pet peeves, basically. So that’s even worse.

Josh Birk:
And does, does the closed captioning go back to what you were saying before about giving more context and more paths for people to understand what’s going on?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Exactly. Exactly. So if one path doesn’t quite work, you can still rely on the other one.

Josh Birk:
Got it. Nice. Nice. Okay, so this is brilliant stuff. Are there tools out there that people can use to test this, to see how good their pages are doing, to put themselves on some guard rails for this?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. So one of the… I think I would say if you’re looking for a single source of truth, when it comes to cognitive accessibility, and accessibility in general, is of course the WCAG page, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They recently released, even under their link, so we can attach it to the podcast.

Josh Birk:
Yep.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
They’ve recently released this very big document with user stories of people who are neurodiverse. So you can look at specific examples of how people use the web, and they also added some recommendations for these cases. So I think if you’re looking for a really good set of guidelines, WCAG is the way to go. And if one comes to other tools, there are contrast checkers you can use to make sure that your website meets the contrast requirements.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And one of them is a WebAIM. So you can check one if it meets, again, the WCAG standards. And if you’re using a design tool, there’s a plugin that’s called Stark. And it has all these like accessibility compliance tools.

Josh Birk:
Nice.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. And the other thing, when it comes to writing, like the paradigm I’m doing professionally, there are plenty of plain language tools you can use to make sure that your website copy, your text, is easy to understand. And I think one of the best ones that are free and accessible to everyone, is Hemingway. It’s called Hemingway App. And it’s a web app. There is a free version that’s pretty good, because it has all you need to check whether your website is written in plain language. And it uses the Fog standards, the Fog scale, to see whether your text is easy to understand. So I’d really recommend that one too.

Josh Birk:
Nice, nice, awesome stuff. Is there any books that you recommend just to read about this kind of stuff?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
When it comes to books, this topic is still pretty new, so it’s still like a community, you’re under this building. But there are some names I would really recommend when it comes to the topic of neurodiversity. And one of these names is Rachel Morgan-Trimmer. She’s a neurodiversity consultant, and she posted a lot of content about her research, her experience online.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And there is also Tim Goldstein, I’ve mentioned. And he’s a neurodiverse communication specialist, and then a neurodiversity advocate. And there’s a TED talk, an interview about his experience with being a neurodiverse professional in the IT industry, which is also quite surprising at times, and very interesting and eye opening when it comes to the experience of a neurodiverse person in the tech world. So I would also recommend that one.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
And there are several institutions that work with people on the autism spectrum. So just Living Autism, which is based in the UK, and they have a lot of written recommendations based on their research. So that’s also pretty cool and nice to check out.

Josh Birk:
And that’s our show. Now we will put into the show notes, links to Kalina’s writings. She’s got a great blog post, which goes into even more detail from the stuff we were talking about today. And I will try to include links to as many of those tools that she just described, as we can. Now, before we go, I did ask after Kalina’s favorite non-technical hobby. And I don’t know if it’s a favorite of mine, but it is something that I use every day.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
I would say coffee. I’m a huge specialty coffee geek.

Josh Birk:
Nice.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah. So this is like the first thing that came to my mind.

Josh Birk:
That’s awesome. If I’m in Poland, what’s your recommendation?

Kalina Tyrkiel:
I am based in Krakow, Poland. And Krakow, not to brag, but Krakow has a pretty cool specialty coffee scene. So I would say check out Krakow for specialty coffee. Yeah, but I was in Chicago, and I really enjoyed the coffee there too. I was in Stumptown, I think it was, in several locations, and that was really nice too.

Josh Birk:
Okay, I am very glad that we could hold up to your standards. If you’re ever in Australia… One thing I learned very quickly in Australia, was that almost all Australians take their coffee really seriously.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
They do, they do. I have a Polish-Australian neighbor, and they do take their coffee very seriously, I can confirm that.

Josh Birk:
I ordered a simple light Americano black while I was just randomly talking to one of my Australian cohorts, and he looked at me like I was dead to him.

Kalina Tyrkiel:
Yeah, I think if any nation is serious about their coffee, I think it’s the Australians.

Josh Birk:
Well, wherever you live, try to find some specialty coffee. That’s the thing that helps you start your day. I want to thank Kalina for the great conversation and information. And as always, I want to thank you for listening. Now, if you want to learn more about this show, head on over to developer.salesforce.com/podcast, where you can hear all the episodes, see the show notes and have links to your favorite podcast service. Thanks again, everybody. I’ll talk to you next week.