My mom is an O.G. console cowgirl, a real-life hidden figure. Working for Ma Bell in the early ’70s, she was responsible for administrating some of the most powerful computers then in the country, the ones that drove our telephone systems. “I’m one of only seven people who know how to program these,” I remember her once bragging as she swept her hand across a clean room the size of an aircraft hanger filled to the ceiling with blinking, whirring mainframes.
But Sally Brownlee isn’t so good with computers anymore. Last March, she was hit by a car while walking her dog. Everyone survived, but Wally lives with another family now (he’s happy; I hear they have a beach house), and as for Mom, who suffered permanent brain damage, she’s not the same in innumerable ways. But in no way is the change more quantifiable to me than when I watch her stares uncomprehendingly at the keyboard of her laptop, or try and fail to use her iPad for the umpteenth time. This woman’s technical expertise launched a billion phone calls, yet now, she is routinely thwarted by what many hail as one of the most accessible UIs on the planet.
[T]he older we get, the more we act like we’re cognitively disabled: Again, according to Nielsen, people’s ability to use websites effectively declines 0.8% every year over the age of 25.
“It happens naturally,” [Lisa Seeman, a member of IBM Accessibility Research and the editor of the World Wide Web Consortium’s standards for making designs for individuals with cognitive disabilities] explains. “We get older, and even without having something like dementia, we become less capable of figuring new things out.” And this isn’t true only for seniors. Cognitive ability is a spectrum, not a binary switch: It goes down when you’re stressed, tired, depressed, hungry, or in pain. “Everybody has the same cognitive impairments when they’re stressed or depressed,” Seeman says.
In other words, cognitive accessibility isn’t just relevant for people with brain damage, like my mother. It’s relevant to everyone, from people with migraines to neophytes in emerging markets who don’t have software translated yet into their local languages.
So what’s the answer? A system-level toggle you flip to tell software you’re cognitively disabled, which then dumbs down your interfaces accordingly? Nothing so gauche, laughs Seeman. Where the industry needs to go, she says, is dynamic UIs: Interfaces that aren’t built on an assumption of computer literacy but adjust to a user’s capabilities in real time. “What we need are interfaces that meet the user where they already are,” she says.