This extended abstract is a contribution to the Easy-to-Read on the Web Symposium. The contents of this paper were not developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and do not necessarily represent the consensus view of its membership.

Social Networking Service for People with Cognitive or Speech and Language Impairments

1. Problem Description

Social media has become an important tool for social networking. However, most social networking services are very challenging for people with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments. The problems are mostly related to understanding the different concepts of the environment and related terminology, but the accessibility and usability problems common to all internet services also apply (Sevilla et al., 2007).

People with cognitive or speech and language impairments are user groups who benefit from use of easy-to-read or plain language (The Plain Language Centre, 2012). When developing an easy-to-use social networking service for this group, what are the main points to focus on in order to make the service accessible and pleasant to use? What does accessibility mean for this user group in this context?

2. Background

Existing social networking services are not very suitable for people with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments for variety of reasons. For example Facebook, the mainstream social networking service, has its features placed quite unintuitively in the user interface, making a specific feature somewhat difficult to find. The terms used in buttons and links are not very familiar to those who haven´t been using these kind of services before, so there´s quite steep learning curve. Privacy is also a concern (Strater & Lipford, 2008), but even more pronounced with this target group.

There are also social media services not that complicated, even ones specifically designed for people with IDD, but those are not always available in your own language.

3. Approach

3.1 The Project

In the spring of 2009, the Papunet network service unit of The Finnish Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (FAIDD) launched a project to create an easy-to-use social networking service. Problems had arisen in our public chatrooms and discussion boards for people with IDD or SLI, demanding a more controlled and secure environment, where single users would be identifiable. The users also wanted more features and more interaction with each other.

The main target group for the new service were people who have difficulties using existing social networking services. In addition to FAIDD project team, there were a group of youths from media workshop of Omapolku association as a project partner, participating in the design process.

3.2 Methods

The service was implemented using user-centered design methods.

During the first year of the project a pilot version of the service was created. The pilot version was based on a social networking software platform, improving its features with co-designers who gave their opinion about the usability, what they would like to do in the service, the colour theme and helped to pick a name for the service. They also participated in usability testing. The resulting pilot version was then opened to the public for target group users to try out.

Usage statistics and feedback was gathered from about a hundred users of the pilot version for about a year. Based on that information, a new, improved version of the service was created, with additional features such as text-to-speech functionality and a tool for text input. Individual features and the service as a whole were reviewed and usability tested by the co-designers.

4. Challenges and outcomes

4.1 User interface usability

The design and testing phase made it absolutely clear that the main requirements for the user interface are clarity and intuitiveness. Layout should be visually clear and uncluttered. The appearance of UI controls should be distinct from other elements and uniform throughout the service so that clickable areas could be located more easily. They should also be large enough, requiring less motor precision.

The number of views was reduced by combining views by privacy level. This way users would get a better picture of the audience for what they share. For example everything shared with your friends, e.g. info about you, your friends, your photos etc. is located on your own profile page. It is important that posted content appears only in one place, on the same page where it is posted.

4.2 Low literacy skills

Difficulties in reading and writing are common among people with cognitive or speech and language impairments. In a service where most of the communication is in written form, reading and writing support is essential.

In, a text-to-speech functionality with sentence highlighting was added to all messages.

A text input tool was also developed, with a set of about a hundred clickable phrases with picture symbols. The tool can be used with every text input field in the service.

4.3 Terms of service and instructions

Few services have their terms of use written in compact and intelligible form. That would be ethically correct for everyone, but especially for people with cognitive disabilities.

In, the terms of service are written in plain language. Each section in the terms is also illustrated by a comic strip, which provides an example how the rules apply in practice.

4.4 Sign-up and sign-in

A service where the user has to be identified and thus must sign up for an account is difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. In order to successfully sign in, the user has to fill in the registration form, have an e-mail account where the username and password would be delivered and then enter the credentials in the sign-in form. Completing all those steps without mistakes is necessary in order to sign in successfully, but requires good IT skills and memory.

Sign-in was improved by breaking the sign-in form onto separate pages. The username is entered first, and the password on the second page. The username input was also made less picky about whitespace and letter case. Those who have hard time remembering and entering text strings have an option to use a picture password, where you select picture symbols from a set in right sequence.

5. Conclusions

After implementing the changes in previous chapter, usage statistics show that people using the service seem to benefit from the changes compared to the pilot version without these features. Users visit more frequently and spend much more time per visit.

When developing services for people with IDD or SLI, user-centered methods must be used, because target group is so diverse and problems quite unexpected. Following WCAG 2.0 is a good starting point, with additional focus on making the user interface, site purpose, structure and content more understandable and otherwise accessible.

Although there are good solutions to many of above challenges, some problems are hard to solve because of internet technology and practices. For example user identification is difficult because the common way (username and password) is challenging for the user group and simpler yet secure solutions (i.e QR codes) are technically more challenging.


  1. Sevilla, J., Herrera, G., Martínez, B., and Alcantud, F: Web accessibility for individuals with cognitive deficits: A comparative study between an existing commercial Web and its cognitively accessible equivalent. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 14, 3 (Sep. 2007), 12 (2007)
  2. The Plain Language Centre (2012). Groups that use plain language. Available at: Last accessed October 11th 2012.
  3. Strater, K., Lipford, H.R.: Strategies and struggles with privacy in an online social networking community. In: Proceedings of the 22nd British HCI Group Annual Conference on HCI 2008: People and Computers Xxii: Culture, Creativity, interaction, Liverpool, United Kingdom, September 01 - 05, vol. 1, pp. 111-119. British Computer Society, Swinton (2008)