Designing Experiences for for People with ADHD (and anyone else): 5 Goals

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Imagine if we could see or hear what distracts people… Squirrel!

Everyone is intrinsically motivated to do things that give them a sense of competency, a sense of autonomy or agency, and a sense of social relatedness to others (Ryan, Deci, 1985). This is the general recipe for keeping anyone engaged, but even more so with people who have ADHD.

The behaviors associated with the cognitive impairments of ADHD can dramatically affect a person’s ability to learn or engage. Some of these behaviors include inattentiveness, being disorganized, impulsivity, difficulty forecasting consequences, poor multitasking, poor recall, becoming easily bored, recklessness, and becoming quickly frustrated (NIH, 2016), i.e., in gamer language, rage-quitting.

People with ADHD usually have had a lifetime of flustered authority figures trying to teach them, telling them to pay attention, to sit still, or constantly redirecting them to do something that is likely BORING. Rarely are they given agency to engage at their own pace, or to design their own learning experiences. And, rarely do they get to play the role of an independent expert who gains genuine respect from others.  As a consequence, people with ADHD are left feeling:

  • Incapable because their impairment impedes learning in traditional school settings
  • Disrespected because they have had a lifetime of being redirected from their own inclinations (i.e., not just told what to do, but told that what you want to do is not the best choice)
  • Socially devalued because they have internalized the belief that they are problematic, or a burden (i.e., they come to believe that they are inherently bad)

With this in mind, consider including the following goals in your user experience (UX) designs if your target audience includes people with ADHD. The experiences described here are focused on the experience of learning for those with attention deficits, however they can be easily generalized to any user experience, and any audience.

Goal 1: Find that sweet-spot challenge.

Create opportunities for your user to feel competent. Design challenges they can master, given some effort. Perform UX tests to determine that sweet-spot balance between hard and easy.

  • DON’T disrespect your audience with digital atta-boys (atta-girls) and digital good job stickers by over-complimenting them when they master easy tasks. ADHD is a cognitive impairment that affects neurological pathways, regardless of a person’s capacity to comprehend (Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., 2002). Extrinsic gamification motivators can backfire if you are not careful, and decrease a user’s intrinsic desire to engage. When Carol Dweck’s (2013) students finish challenges quickly and easily, she does not reward them with star stickers. She says, you did that so quickly and easily; I’m sorry I wasted your time with this.  If you want to keep them engaged, increase the challenge if your metrics reveal that activities are too easy.
  • DO reward users if they have attempted a challenge more than once, and keep them informed of how far or close they are to meeting the challenge. People with ADHD can have an impairment in the neurological pathway that relates to the emotional value of instant reward versus delayed reward (Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., 2002). This is why it is important to find that sweet spot via UX testing! Even if they fail the challenge, offer an instant reward of knowing they are getting closer and closer. Also provide differentiated levels of difficulty.

Goal 2: Let them be in charge.

Create a decision architecture (Kahneman, 2011). Provide agency.  People with ADHD usually have had a lifetime of authority figures trying to teach them, telling them to pay attention, to sit still, constantly redirecting them to do something that likely bores them. Create real choices for your users; give them options for how they want to engage.

Goal 3: Track their progress and store their information with visual tools.

All of us have various levels of difficulty with our working memory, our ability to plan, and our ability to transition. This can be more pronounced for people with ADHD (Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S.,2002). If possible, include progress programming (e.g., a mark that shows where you are in the agenda, a progress map, a dashboard, etc.) Inform users where they were, where they are, and where they can decide to go. Also include visual cognition tools to help users to organize and share information and ideas. Help users to reduce their cognitive overload and leverage their visual cognition with infographics that hold information. Information in an image is often easier to consume, and can instantly stimulate thinking. This will give users more working memory to dedicate to problem-solving.

Goal 4: Let your users teach others.

Called the Protege Effect, students who learn via teaching others have been shown to score higher on tests than students who are learning for their own sake (Leelawong and Biswas, 2008). However, having the social skills to teach others could be problematic. One of the consequences of the ADHD behavior cluster is difficulty with relationships, and presenting antisocial behaviors (NIH, 2016).

Consider including a digital teachable agent in your design, one whose feelings will not easily bruise. This can provide a sense of companionship and accountability. It will also help to shoulder more of the cognitive load (Arias et al. 2000), and serve as an ego-protective buffer, where possible failures can be assigned to the agent and not the learner. This can potentially reduce failure anxiety as well (Bargh & Schul, 1980).

Goal 5: Let your users control their social interactions.

Again, one of the consequences of the ADHD behavior cluster is difficulty with relationships, and presenting antisocial behaviors (NIH, 2016). People with ADHD are often left feeling incompetent because the way they learn doesn’t align with learning in traditional school settings. In addition, impulsive actions can be perceived as inconsiderate or selfish. The result is social tension. People with ADHD my adopt coping behaviors to manage social tension, such as avoidance, displaying a false bravado, dismissiveness, not asking for help, not communicating what they do/don’t understand, or perhaps disrespecting authority.

If the design of your user experience includes feedback from others, or interactions with others, consider letting your user control how people can view their progress. Today, everything is live; we can view work as it it is happening. It is important to set up your system so your user has control of how and when they present themselves. Not only does this protect the user from unsolicited and premature criticism, is also provides a buffer for impulsivity. Help your user to mitigate the consequences of their impulsivity by presenting them an option to accept or modify how others will see them. When you leave voicemail, you have the option to listen to it before sending it. Consider how your design can do something similar.

My background is in education, and the experiences I design are usually learning experiences, but the principles hold true with any UX design. Marketing is really teaching people why your product is the best. The 5 goals listed above will increase engagement not just of people with ADHD, but anyone who has ever been distracted, frustrated, or bored.


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