Inclusive Design’s Next Chapter: Design for Cognition

Microsoft Design
Microsoft Design
Published in
7 min readMar 8


A new toolkit for building cognitively inclusive products

By Tracy Jones, with contributions from Christina Mallon, Doug Kim, Margaret Price, and Ali Benter

Four people are standing together having a conversation. Talk bubbles full of lines and dots simulate dialogue. There’s a black background. The drawn figures are white outlines. From left to right a women in a dress wears glasses, a bearded man wears a hat, another young man in a sweater crosses his arms, and a woman with a pig tail holds her computer, smiling.

When we released our Inclusive Design toolkit in 2015, it was an open guide for building products that help people realize their full potential, regardless of physical ability or disability. The toolkit is based on three principles: recognize exclusion; learn from diversity; and solve for one, extend to many. The principles state that exclusion will happen unless product creators learn from experts with disabilities, apply insights to product creation, and extend benefits across a broad spectrum of people. Millions around the world downloaded and used the toolkit, but whole fields of opportunity weren’t addressed. This addition to the toolkit is a beginning for addressing the biggest gap: Cognitive exclusion, which occurs when products don’t account for different ways of perceiving and experiencing the world around us.

When it comes to product development, we often only accommodate certain ways in which people relate to their environments and the tools within them. Humanity traverses a broad neural spectrum and it works to everyone’s detriment when product makers don’t design to include the needs of individuals across the spectrum of neurodiversity. Any situation we encounter is a combination of our capabilities, motivations, emotions, and the demands the environment places on us. Those elements can either help us or they can work against us, and for any task to be successful, the motivation has to equal or surpass cognitive load or physical requirements. If you can create a focused experience that works better for someone with ADHD, it works for everyone — whereas the inverse of that isn’t true, therefore excluding an estimated 20% of the world’s population, who are believed to be neurodivergent.

Over the past seven years, we have worked with experts in cognition and the disability community to create the Inclusive Design for Cognition Exclusion Toolkit, a set of tools on how to design to reflect the incredible diversity of human cognition. To get a brief overview of the toolkit and to work against cognitive exclusion in your designs, here are three key actions that you can take.

An illustration of a smiling woman holding a video game controller. She’s adjacent to a computer monitor.
Craft experiences that empower people to learn and stay curious.

Start with motivation

To address cognitive exclusion, we start with human motivation, like creativity, play, or growth, rather than asking what features or technology we can add to a product. Once we establish that motivation, we can start looking for mismatches that prevent someone from achieving it. In this context, mismatches arise from the degree of cognitive demands that our experiences ask of people. Let’s say the goal is to create a video game that inspires joy, discovery, and wonder, but to do that, the person has to learn coding. If you only look at an end-to-end journey for producing a game, you miss out on creating experiences that provide connection or wonder, that support resilience during discomfort when tasks feel hard, and that help people everywhere stay connected to their larger motivation. Creating with motivations, goals, and tasks in mind helps broaden innovation possibilities — how might the product experience shift if you brainstormed against only one area versus the consistent connection between and among several? Products should support motivations by making it simple to set goals and accomplish tasks that fulfill those motivations. Unfortunately, product creators often ignore core human motivations and invent tasks that serve the product.

We want to avoid a collection of mismatched features that can occur when there is no mapping between tasks, goals, and motivations. When all the components in a product ladder up to the same set of higher-level goals and motivations, the entire experience feels coherent and in service to the customer’s needs. When they aren’t aligned, tasks can seem like pointless distractions taking away from true motivations. Once the tasks mirror the goals, ask what are the cognitive demands?

Supporting designers and developers to innovate in a way that puts humans first, on a universal scale.

Supporting designers and developers to innovate in a way that puts humans first, on a universal scale.

Identify cognitive demands

Determine how much of your experience requires focus, recall, learning, decision-making, and communication. A person’s emotional state, personality traits and wellbeing have significant impact on each of these cognitive areas and the degree of exclusion they may experience. One person may be experiencing stress and anxiety for reasons unrelated to a task. Those factors might make the task feel impossible in the moment but entirely doable and even easy in a less stressful time. If the motivation, goal, and task are all aligned, you need to then ask what cognitive demands are being placed. Every experience requires some cognitive demand or load, but the key is to understand what type and if the ways to meet those demands serve a variety of cognitive approaches.

For example, because it’s easy to get distracted and wrapped up in meetings, people need to prioritize their time and presence to focus on making necessary progress. Outlook and Viva now help people block off their focus time. In addition, Windows has a Focus mode as well. To minimize disruption, reduce the anxiety of a back-to-back calendar, and encourage concentration, we enabled people to be more in control of their schedules and workflows.

In Outlook, we created features that let people dedicate uninterrupted time on performing specific tasks in between meetings. They can set preferences like muting notifications and adding notes to be prepared for their focus session. We learned that specifying what was needed to be focused on during that time helped with memory, and therefore led to more productive focus sessions. Since looking at a back-to-back calendar gave people anxiety, we altered the visual appearance of the focus events to vary in color, ensuring that their time is protected. People that have Viva can also create a focus plan to flexibly block off sessions around meetings two weeks in advance.

When it comes to context-switching between meetings and focus, customers will receive their relied-upon memory cue, an Outlook reminder, letting them know that it’s their time to focus. They can use their notes in the event to recall what they intended to do during that time, which reduces the cognitive overload of task initiation. Teams presence also shifts to “focusing” to alleviate the immediate pressure of having to respond. It’s now time to part clouds and have some time in the sunlight.

With Windows Focus mode, the noise is turned down so traction towards making progress can turn up. Applications shouldn’t fight for attention, so the OS works to help protect focus throughout the session. People need that space to breathe and think, so we aim to facilitate calm with a muted taskbar and delayed notifications. Proven to help reduce interruptions and help people tune in, there is an adaptive pomodoro timer linked to your session time. This technique works in effective sprints of focus and short breaks. We learned that a timer can cause stress, so to support the range of needs, people can customize the timer to be a growing plant. Lastly, people can link and prompt a playlist to quickly reach their unique state of flow. Your playlist could be whatever you want, mine is made up of lo-fi beats, what’s yours? Everybody has their own way of doing things, but to understand those varied methods, we have to design together.

A young man in a wheel chair is at his computer virtually meeting with an older man in glasses. Below them is a series of three hands. The first hand holds dirt with a sprouted shrub, the second holds a leafed stem getting watered, and the last hand holds a grown plant receiving sunlight.
Get inspired by human interaction

Co-create with cognitive diversity in mind

Since our starting place is a motivation like focus, not a medical condition, we recruit people who identify focus as an area of concern, including folks with conditions like ADHD.

They co-create solutions with us, alongside a range of people who don’t have ADHD, but also experience frustration and anxiety with interruptions. This allows for inclusive designs to be tried and true, since we acquire a deep understanding of people’s needs, preferences, and aspirations. Co-creating and designing with careful observation and empathetic conversations with individuals and groups is key to understanding someone’s behavior, and their story.

But to do that, the battle against cognitive exclusion starts with a new class of experiences to outfit customers with safe tools that are task specific, and work in concert to holistically help fulfill their motivations and aspirations. It’s always a choice to let people or technology lead an interaction. While there’s endless potential for how technology can augment, assist, and support people, we can’t forget the human needs of control, trust, and dignity. When we design technology, we are, in essence, teaching it how to behave appropriately as it interacts with people. To do this, we need to understand people. Just like there are no wrong notes in jazz, there isn’t a “right” way of behaving, learning, or thinking when experiencing and interacting with the world around us. If we want to better serve our customers, it is more important than ever to frame and reframe problems and opportunities by asking “what human needs can we support?” instead of only asking “what can the latest technology do?”

Find out more, download the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit.

To all of the disability advocates that came before us, we thank you.

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