What Does Neurodiversity Teach Us About Inclusive Software Development?

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Karolina Długosz

Feb 18, 2022 • 10 min read
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Why is it important to talk about neurodiversity? How can inclusive design be reflected in software products?

Karolina Długosz, Sustainability Lead at Netguru, spoke with different experts on this topic:

Neurodiversity spekers (1)

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the idea that people experience or perceive the world around us in many different ways. The term was first coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, who wanted to promote equality of neurodiverse, or “neuroatypical” individuals. It is a fairly new concept, yet it’s something that software development companies should explore and take into account to create better, more inclusive digital services.

According to Krzysztof Szalecki, a cooperator of a/typical foundation, to explain what neurodiversity entails, it’s best to first take a quick peek at diversity. The term diversity refers to differences predetermined mainly by our physiognomy — it encompasses everything we can see with our bare eyes, like gender, ethnicity, body type, etc.

In contrast, neurodiversity encompasses our biological composition, which isn’t apparent at all.

Neurodiversity focuses on non-measurable aspects of our being, such as how we perceive the world around us, and what anxieties or conditions we might have.

These are fully subjective and based solely on our emotions or the way we experience the world, as dictated by the composition of our brain.

“Every individual’s brain is composed of one hundred billion neurons or about as many as the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. They are all connected to each other through synapses that amount to a total of a billiard — 1,000 trillion — a number that is so abstract it can’t really be compared with anything. And, we are talking only about the mechanism of the brain itself, before it even starts working.

The assumption that such a complicated structure will work the same way for everyone is simply erroneous. The fact that it actually works in a reasonably consistent manner across individuals is already a huge success,” Krzysztof Szalecki explained.

The differences in the workings of our brains is what we call neurodiversity — and that’s what deems an individual atypical.

Who are neurodiverse or atypical persons?

Atypical persons include those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, anomy, Tourette's syndrome, and many others — these are just a handful of examples. Neurodiverse people possess certain “conditions” that are genetically determined and, in general, are formed at birth.

Krzysztof Szalecki underlined that neurodiversity should not be confused with illnesses. It’s not like the flu that can be treated. Rather, an atypical person has traits that could be considered “beyond normal.” These traits include learning difficulties or a different way of perceiving various stimuli and the world which can result in conditions like phobias that are difficult to comprehend to people who don’t experience them.

Let’s imagine a Gaussian curve. The vast majority of our population will be in the middle section: they look, perceive, and feel similarly. The two extremes represent the neurodiverse or atypical people who are more or less sensitive and experience reality more or less intensely than others.

Why is it important to talk about neurodiversity?

“20–25% of us are neuroatypical. This means that every fifth or even every fourth person perceives the world through their own eyes. We should be thinking about it in terms of an asset that can be used to our advantage,” stated Paulina Ołtusek.

Meanwhile, atypical persons are often deemed ill; parents of children with dyslexia or ADHD often consider them disorderly, while these are both common conditions that people can not only live with, but also benefit from in different ways.

Dyslexic persons may experience difficulties when reading or writing, but they are incredibly communicative in person and typically exhibit great spatial imagination. People with ADHD may be impulsive by nature and can experience difficulty with attention; however, such persons thrive in dynamic environments, are creative, and can be deeply engaged in what they do.

Autistic persons may struggle in social interactions or when building relationships, but they can also focus incredibly well on performing meticulous activities, are punctual, persistent, and think in a very analytical manner. These are great advantages that can be used in social, professional, and educational life.

We believe it’s time to speak about neurodiverse people inclusively — as part of “the norm” rather than a deviation from the norm. Unfortunately, the current vocabulary options related to this new concept still point the majority of us to thinking in this wrong way.

Why is inclusivity important for atypical persons?

According to Kamil Śliwowski, atypical persons have very different and diverse needs. A great example of how a service can be more inclusive is Wikipedia’s introduction of Opendyslexic — a font dedicated to individuals with dyslexia.

Such a simple mechanism introduced by one of the most popular education tools radically increased the educational chances of students who experience reading difficulties because of dyslexia.

Similarly, it’s important to maintain a variety of educational services to cater for individual needs. For example, people with ADHD could benefit from video materials that can be paused at any time, or those that offer the option to choose between different lecturer voices. When it comes to neurodiverse people, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of variety when it comes to educational tools.

However, inclusion shouldn’t be focusing solely on education and early years. As Kamil Śliwowski noted, “Very often, once we are 18 years old, we treat ourselves as if we don’t require any support at all. Meanwhile, both an atypical person and a non-atypical person in a stressful situation will struggle when using badly designed software.”

Whether you are an atypical person or not, you will come across stressful or challenging situations in your adult life. Think about someone who has broken their arm and is thus temporarily or situationally “impaired,” or a new mother holding her baby in one arm — people in such situations will have different challenges. A well-designed product or service could help us with it painlessly and more efficiently, and software developers should take that fact into account.

How can inclusive design be reflected in software products?

According to Agata Rączewska, “there is no such thing as special software designed for an atypical person. Such a tool will not be significantly different or disturbing to a person who does not identify themselves with that group; on the contrary — it will be more universal. It is simpler, clearer, and has fewer distractions. Designers should simply follow the best practices and their designs will be inclusive.”

As a software development company, we understand it’s our responsibility to build inclusive software. Thought-through, well-designed solutions will work for everyone.

What are some of the best practices to follow when creating universal projects? Consider these user-friendly practices:

  • Follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and other relevant standards. You may also find this accessibility resource useful.
  • Mark the main user journey as clearly as possible and avoid any confusion or elements that may distract a user from following it.
  • Opt for simplicity, clarity, and cleanliness of the design.
  • Aim to visually please, rather than disturb.
  • Skip extremely vibrant colors.
  • Avoid pop-up windows or any components that may break a user’s attention span.
  • Avoid dark patterns that coerce users to specific actions.
  • Abstain from autoplay and adding music that suddenly appears out of nowhere — it may be just as distracting as the pop-up windows.
  • Avoid time constraints and any mechanisms oriented at shortening user reaction times.

You may have noticed that this list includes avoiding elements that typically distract or annoy most of us. The key to building universal designs is avoiding distractions. “It's hard to design something that will make it easier for everyone, including atypical people, to stay focused. It's easier to approach this without making it difficult to stay focused,” said Agata Rączewska. Concentrate on maximizing usability and that will make your projects more inclusive.

Adding to this, Matylda Siuta explained, “usability is tightly linked to accessibility.

When designers are oriented at creating products that are easy to use, these products will almost automatically meet the standards and will be easier to use for everyone.

Some companies use dark patterns and get punished for that, so it seems that we are going in the right direction. Being overwhelmed with stimuli or data, which is a common problem in many products, is a problem not just for atypical people, but for everyone. Creating simple and usable products will benefit numerous and different groups of people, not just atypical persons. I often think about my mom and what she looks at when using her banking application. I hope this understanding will become commonplace.”

Building inclusive designs benefits all of us

“The concept of neurodiversity pays great attention to not only talking about the limitations that result from some kind of different state or different perception of the world, but also about the benefits that we can all derive from taking this view into account,” said Paulina Ołtusek.

As a software development company, Netguru understands it’s our responsibility to build inclusive products — for the benefit of neurodiverse people and for all of us. But we aren’t the only ones who are responsible for normalizing neurodiversity. Parents, teachers, CEOs, and designers can all follow suit — at least by keeping the points below in mind:

  • Be open to neurodiversity and understand that people perceive the world differently.
  • Build the culture of inclusivity in your organization.
  • Approach young students with understanding and try to tailor teaching practices to individual needs, understanding that different students may have different educational needs. This could be their gateway to the future.
  • Don’t aim for success, but for wellness. Most services have different settings or options that can be used to adjust them to individual needs.
  • Have courage to reject silly design ideas proposed by clients.

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Karolina Długosz

Sustainability Lead
sustainability in IT

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