Who was your website made for?

It’s a question that web designers and UX experts contemplate early on, whether building a new website or thinking about a redesign. They might create a hypothetical profile on what their ideal user looks like, what information they are interested in, and then create a general layout for their website.

But the truth of the matter is that most designers and companies probably do not think about the special needs for users who cannot navigate websites in typical ways. While the subject of web accessibility has gained traction among developers and designers, we wanted to take some time to spotlight the needs of one particular group: individuals with Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

April 11 is World Parkinson’s Day, a day that seeks to raise awareness of the disease and the challenges it presents to those affected. Despite Parkinson’s being one of the most common and widely recognized neurological diseases, many websites do not offer an accessible way for PD patients to navigate and browse information.

Fortunately, there are ways to help those dealing with Parkinson’s have a better web experience, so as experts in user experience and design, we wanted to do our part to bring attention to ways that websites can be more accessible for individuals with Parkinson’s.

The Challenges

It is estimated that Parkinson’s disease affects between 7 and 10 million people worldwide, with around a million individuals diagnosed in the United States alone. Parkinson’s can affect individuals in a variety of ways, with the most common and visible sign being an uncontrollable hand tremor. However, PD can also cause cognitive problems, including dementia, as well as alterations to mood and behavior. 

While the disease does not yet have a cure, medicines and treatment plans can help give patients a better standard of living, particularly as researchers learn more and more about the disease. Yet one thing that has made treating Parkinson’s particularly tricky is that doctors often have to develop individualized treatment plans for patients, as Parkinson’s does not have a “one size fits all” medication or treatment. Different patients will simply present different symptoms and progress in non-standardized ways.

Building a Website for People with Parkinson’s

Because of the way that Parkinson’s often affects people, web designers have to pay special attention to make sure these individuals can access information more easily. Fortunately, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 offer some tips that could help individuals with Parkinson’s.

For example, WCAG specifics that website functionality should be able to be accessed completely via keyboard. Perhaps just as importantly, this functionality can’t exist for a limited time, to give those with motor impairments time to navigate. If a functionality must be time-sensitive, then websites should also have a way for users to extend the amount of time available when possible.

A simple design consideration that WCAG recommends: consistency of navigation. Having the navigation appear consistently across pages helps individuals experiencing motor skills impairment know where to look and cues them regardless of what page they access. This can help individuals navigating with a keyboard.

Finally, WCAG recommends that websites should alert users when input errors occur automatically. This can help users react more quickly to errors. Furthermore, a WCAG-compliant website should also provide suggestions on how to fix the problem. This could help individuals with Parkinson’s experiencing cognitive impairment, for example.

Additional Considerations

Google is already taking steps to punish websites with elements that shift around page elements with pop-ups and page takeovers. These elements annoy most of us, but imagine having Parkinson’s and dealing with hand tremors while page elements shift around on the page. If you needed yet another reason to not include moving elements, let this be it.

Website elements can also be difficult to navigate. Dropdown menus often include small font or closely spaced items. For individuals with Parkinson’s not using assistive tools, trying to navigate using small buttons or links can prove frustrating. It is always worth thinking of ways to better arrange and present navigation elements.

Doing Our Part

Web accessibility is an important issue, and while there are plenty of more considerations to consider to make a website truly accessible, we hope that these items provided a starting point for important conversations. The unique challenges presented by Parkinson’s disease can affect a person’s quality of life, but as user experience designers and web designers, we can all think of ways to help improve websites for everyone.