Skip to Main Content

Fix Your Error Flows, Or Send Me More Spoons

taught by: Shell Little

Session Summary:

When mental exhaustion is high, mistakes happen. Accidents due to cognitive fatigue, or lack of Spoons, can happen to just about anyone but for people with Disabilities, they are much more of a daily occurrence. The act of giving information to a piece of digital technology already has its pain points, but when users with disabilities are experiencing cognitive fatigue or Brain Fog, every issue is intensified. When these mistakes happen, error flows are the safety net users rely on to help guide them to success. During this presentation Shell Little will discuss Spoon Theory and how the sliding scale of Cognitive abilities applies to error patterns. Attendees can expect to leave with a better understanding of the barriers people with Cognitive Disabilities experience with User Input related tasks. This will be done by discussing patterns, using real-world examples, and breaking down common form accessibility misconceptions as they apply to Cognitive Accessibility. Let’s decrease the number of errors users create by removing the unintentional barriers these patterns generate.


Receiving and processing information from users is a core function of countless companies and organizations. Whether or not a user makes it to that “Your Order is Complete” screen is essential to the survival of services. Even with that being true, we still have a long way to go to make these patterns barrier-free. Throughout the past few years, we have made gigantic strides in Form Accessibility for Screen Reader users, but we have a lot of room for improvement for people, like me, who have Cognitive Disabilities. In this talk, I aim to discuss Error Flows through the lens of Spoon Theory. Error patterns give protection to the people whose abilities are on an ever-changing, sliding scale, so it’s time we discuss their needs.

Spoon Theory is a commonly used way to explain what it’s like living with disabilities. Everyone has ‘spoons’ or energy at the start of the day to achieve tasks. Those with disabilities require more spoons to do everyday tasks and get less back when resting. When you ‘run out of spoons’, things like paying the bills can be near impossible. Spoon Theory is the perfect way to frame the sliding ability scale people with Cognitive Disabilities experience when it comes to daily tasks and how something like Error Patterns can be so critical.

In order to start with a solid foundation, I begin my talk by defining Spoon Theory and giving the audience a deep description of what it is like to have a disability that can leave someone unable to complete tasks. This will be done through personal anecdotes, quotes pulled from Twitter, and stories from other Disabled individuals. In this section, I will spend time breaking down some misconceptions that come along with invisible disabilities as it applies to Spoon Theory. There are millions of people across the world who deal with things like Sensory Processing Disorder, Brain Fog, and Cognitive Fatigue due to a wide spectrum of less talked about disabilities. These are the users that need us to create flows that will get them through to the glorious confirmation screen.

After we have discussed Spoon Theory, I will then move into the WCAG criterion that apply to user input flows or error patterns in order to analyze where they excel and where there are gaps. It is important that the Accessibility field recognize the good and the bad when it comes to our standards. This section will be critical for understanding why we have the barriers we have today in user input flows and why so many bad patterns can be found out in everyday technologies and services.

The bulk of the content in my presentation is in the next section, revolving around several patterns and numerous examples. This section will include how to decrease the amount of errors users are generating and what to do when an error is triggered. Examples of patters that will be discussed are auto-filling form fields, form validation, patterns such as disabling submit buttons, error handling, and labels and instructions. Some of these examples are direct fails of WCAG, others fall between the cracks of the standards. Examples will be pulled from real-world sources to discuss the wins and fails of many services in the wild. When designers are looking for good patterns, these are the websites they look to for guidance. While breaking down these examples, we will be doing it with a focus Cognitive Disabilities and that specific sliding scale of abilities, but other user groups will be discussed.

By putting into context, the needs of users with Cognitive Disabilities, the patterns that walk the line of only usability are pushed into the spectrum of Accessibility. By expanding our idea of what an Assistive Technology is for people with Cognitive Disabilities, things like autosaved passwords, auto complete, and copy/paste in forms becomes Accessibility barriers, not just bad UX. If we aren’t thinking about the users who need these functions, it’s easy to write them off as “nice to haves” rather than critical task ending elements. If we spend the time to learn about what users with Cognitive Disabilities experience daily and apply those needs to User Input flows, we can remove barriers from a frustrating but unavoidable life task and increase usability along the way.

Practical Skills:

  • A solid understanding of Spoon Theory and its impacts on the way we view and talk about Cognitive Disabilities
  • The barriers that exist in user input flows today and how they affect people with Cognitive Disabilities
  • Design patterns to cut down on the errors triggered and actionable ways to deal with them when they are