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Micro Interactions, More Like Micro Aggressions

taught by: Shell Little

Session Summary:

For a Neurotypical person, an attention-grabbing, movement driven feature can be a friendly nudge alerting to a new enhancement or a welcomed hint that a chat is available if they have questions. Unfortunately for someone with attention-related disabilities, or Neurodivergent, that distraction can and often is the end of the road for a task. With the popularity of micro-interactions on the rise as mobile technology continues to grow, the barriers they create for people with attention-related and other cognitive disabilities rise along with it. In this talk Shell Little will discuss the difficult place we are at with these standard-less patterns that help some and block others. A variety of examples will be examined using in-the-wild patterns with a focus on mobile-based micro-interactions, all to answer the question ‘what is micro enough?’.


The WCAG criterion 2.2.2 Pause, Stop, Hide, covers moving elements lasting longer than five seconds, yet the time it takes to break a task for someone with an Attention Related Disability is a millisecond. The new patterns being delivered these days are more-aggressive-than-ever micro-interactions to encourage users to ‘sign up’, ‘chat for help’, or to ‘buy this’. These aggressive patterns come as a result of the ad wars being waged on the internet today with advertisers being pit against the Ad Blocking technologies. It has created an aggressive and barrier filled experience for many users with Cognitive Disabilities. Thankfully these ‘dark patterns’ don’t represent all Micro Interactions. Other uses of these patterns can be to help users understand flows better, pull them in the right direction, or communicate the app has received user input. Regardless of their intensions, these ‘micro’ interactions are all less than 5 seconds, causing them to fall into an interesting ‘standard-less’ space.

The web is becoming increasingly more overwhelming to users with Cognitive Disabilities. Speaking as someone who has ADHD and is also a Mobile Accessibility lead, the rise in these aggressive patterns concerns me. They do often technically pass the WCAG standards, but they still serve as a barrier none the less. Cognitive Accessibility frequently falls in between the cracks the standards have and we as a field have a responsibility to think about and look beyond them to ensure inclusion. Meeting compliance does not mean your product is accessible, it’s a great start, but we can do more.

This talk starts off with a definition of Neurodivergence (ND) and Spoon Theory, two concepts that are critical to understanding the experiences of people whose brains are wired differently than the Neurotypical minds. Neurodivergence is a term used to describe the experience of having neurological variations that are viewed as outside the ‘cognitive norm’. We will discuss the importance of understanding the term and the identity it gives people with these types of disabilities in depth. It is important to understand what it is like having invisible disabilities and the emotional and mental tole being ‘out of spoons’ can cause. The concept of ‘spoons’ being used as a unit of energy comes from Spoon Theory. This theory is the 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. Cognitive fatigue, brain fog, and emotional repercussions are part of living with a Cognitive Disability. After discussing these concepts, the importance of removing barriers, even ones the standards don’t perfectly cover, becomes clear.

We will then move into discussing Pause, Stop, Hide, to learn more about the strengths of this guideline and the places this guideline has gaps. Discussing the criterion will shine a light onto this often-forgotten criterion that will help clear up why we have reached this state of negative, aggressive, micro-interaction patterns. Using the foundation of these two concepts I will build a narrative based on personal experiences and those of my ND peers.

Referencing real examples, I will discuss the idea of “what is micro enough?”. When it comes to micro-interactions, I am not advocating for the removal of them all, but there is a line where these hints stop being helpful and become a barrier. It’s a difficult line and one that I hope to give guidance on, especially in the mobile space. Typically, these patterns wouldn’t be thought of Accessibility concerns and that’s where I plan to discuss. The only way we will know what is best for our users is to listen to their feedback. This will be done through personal anecdotes, quotes pulled from Twitter, and stories from other Disabled individuals. Pattern examples include updating status badges/labels, bouncing and moving alerts, YouTube’s video information card, lazyload modals, chat boxes, Gmail’s ‘Smart Compose’ feature, and many, many more Web and Mobile interactions.

There are many interactions that if improved, can be incredibly helpful for those with Cognitive Disabilities. If we listen to the feedback from ND people, we can create these better, more inclusive patterns. Micro-interactions have a lot of power to help users if done in a way that keeps the needs of people with attention-related and other cognitive disabilities in mind. Let’s keep them around but design them in a way that reduces barriers.

Practical Skills:

  • The concepts of Neurodivergence and Spoon Theory, two things necessary in understanding the needs and experiences of people with Cognitive Disabilities
  • The strengths and gaps in the WCAG criterion Pause, Stop, Hide and a strong example-based foundation for the idea that ‘compliance isn’t enough’
  • A well-rounded understanding of micro interactions and guidelines/recommendations to create patterns that don’t cross the line from helpful to barrier for people with Cognitive Disabilities