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Cognitive Accessibility Design Pattern: Let Users Avoid Navigating Voice Menus

User Need

I need to get human help, without going through a complex menu system.

What to Do

Let people easily reach a human who can help. Do not require navigating menu systems to reach a human.

Design helpful voice menus by:

  • Providing a known word or reserved digit (such as “0” or “help”) that can be used at any time to skip the voice menu and go directly to a person.
  • Avoiding unnecessary steps or options.
  • Avoiding unnecessary or distracting information such as promotional information.
  • Using words normally used by people with a wide range of cognitive and learning disabilities.
  • Waiting for a slow speaker to respond.
  • Allowing for a quiet speaker, repetition, and stutters.
  • Supporting forgetfulness and memory impairments.
  • Allow for easy error recovery.
  • Following usability best practices.

How it Helps

Many people cannot use voice menu systems. This often stops people from completing critical tasks by themselves. Often this can include making doctors’ appointments, getting health insurance, reaching social services, getting their water turned back on, etc.

If people cannot manage voice menus by themselves, they have to ask someone else to help them. This means the service is not accessible to them. Sometimes tasks are not done. For example, they may delay making a doctor’s appointment or other critical task as not to bother their helper. People often do not get the help they need or get it too late. (This may be partly responsible for the lower life expectancy of people with learning and cognitive disabilities.)

Why can’t people use complex menus?

  • A good short-term and working memory (several seconds) is essential so that the user can remember the number or the term for the menu. Without these functions the user is likely to select the wrong number.
  • Many users have an impaired working memory. For example, if you can remember 7 letters or items in your head at the same time they may be able to remember one or two. This makes them less likely to manage a menu system correctly.
  • For example, a phone menu system (voice markup system) may have an option: “Press 3 for internal services”. To use this option the user must remember a digit 3 while figuring out if they need an internal service. Many people cannot do this. It also requires them to press the correct digit.
  • When a lot of irrelevant information is given before the correct option, the user may have cognitive overload and stop. This is especially true if they did not understand all the earlier options and information.
  • They may not understand the terms used. Having focused on the menu, they may forget why they are calling.
  • Alternative routes, such as web menus, may be provided but are also complex. They are therefore not helpful.

The 0 digit, the word “help” or other culturally appropriate term, should be reserved for reaching a person. Consistently set the first option for each menu to: “to wait for a person who can help you press 0”. This can help everyone reach the support they need.

Test any system with a wide range of users with different learning and cognitive disabilities. Involving a wide range of users has made many voice systems accessible to the extent that they become an aid people with cognitive and learning disabilities.

More Details

Follow best practices in general voice user interfaces (VUIs) design. Standard best practices in voice user interfaces apply to users with cognitive disabilities, and should be followed. These practices are improving as more designs focus on conversational interfaces. Some examples of generally accepted best practices in voice user interfaces design:

  • Pauses are important between phrases in order to allow processing time of language and options.
  • Options in text should be given before the digit to select, or the instruction to select that option. This will mean that the user does not need to remember the digit or instruction whilst processing the term. For example: The prompt “press 1 for the secretary,” requires the user to remember the digit 1 while interpreting the term “secretary”. A better prompt is “for the secretary (pause): press 1” or “ for the secretary (pause) or for more help (pause): press 1”.
  • Error recovery should be simple, and take the user to a human operator if the error persists. Error responses should not end the call or send the user to a more complex menu.
  • Advertisements and other extraneous information should not be read as it can confuse the user and can make it harder to retain attention.
  • Terms used should be as simple and jargon-free as possible.
  • Use Tapered prompts. Best practices in voice user interfaces design include providing several different prompts for each point in the interaction. The different prompts are used based on the user’s behavior. For example, if the user takes a long time to respond to a prompt, a simpler or more explanatory version of the prompt can be used instead of the default. They should be used to increase the level of prompt detail when the user does not respond as expected.

User settings

User-specific settings can be used to customize the voice user interfaces (such as menus, and options). Keep in mind that if it is difficult to set user preferences, they won’t be used. Setting preferences by natural language is the most natural (”slow down!”), but is not currently very common.

  • Extra time should be a user setting for both the speed of speech and ability for the user to define if they need a slower speech or more input time etc. Timed text should be adjustable (as with all accessible media).
  • The user should be able to extend or disable timeouts as a system default on their device.
  • Error recovery should be simple, and take you to a human operator. Error responses should not throw the user off the line or send them to a more complex menu. Preferably they should use a reserved digit for support and human help.
  • Advertisement and other information should not be read as it can confuse the user and can make it harder to retain attention.
  • Terms used should be as simple as possible.
  • Examples and advice should be given on how to build a prompt that reduces the cognitive load
    • Example 1: Reducing cognitive load: The prompt “press 1 for the secretary,” requires the user to remember the digit 1 while interpreting the term secretary. It is less good then the prompt “for the secretary (pause): press 1” or “ for the secretary (pause) or for more help (pause): press 1”.
    • Example 2: Setting a default for a human operator as the number 0.

Considerations for Speech Recognition

  • For speech recognition based systems, standards for voice commands for many languages exists and should be used where possible, such as the ETSI standard ETSI 202 076. Keep in mind that expecting people to learn more than a few commands places a cognitive burden on the user.
  • Natural language understanding systems allow users to state their requests in their own words. This can be useful for users who have difficulty remembering menu options, or who have difficulty mapping the offered menu options to their goals. However, natural language interfaces can be difficult to use for users who have difficulty producing speech or language. Directed dialog (menu-based) fallback or transfer to an agent should be provided. Such fallbacks should be easy to use and conform to this document.

Follow requirements of legislation.

For example, the U.S. Telecommunications Act Section 255 Accessibility Guidelines [[Section255]] paragraph 1193.41 Input, control, and mechanical functions, clauses (g), (h), and (i) apply to cognitive disabilities and require that equipment should be operable without time-dependent controls, the ability to speak, and should be operable by persons with limited cognitive skills.

See Voice Menu Systems issue paper for a full discussion.

Getting Started

Ensure this pattern is included in important systems that affect health, finance, communication, water, and government services.



  • User interaction dialogs in which the first option takes you directly to a human. For example: “To reach for a person who can help you, press 0 or say help”.
  • Error recovery from each point, allowing the user to fix errors easily.
  • The user can easily go back or repeat the list at any point.
  • A user-interaction dialog, such as the standard “0” from any point, where there is easy access to a human operator who can help users achieve their goals.
  • Speech is clear, with pauses.
  • Common words are used.
  • State the option before giving them the key to press or term to use.
  • Advisory technique: Cueing users to record something that may be useful at a later point, and give them time to do so.


  • Long menu systems that make it hard to find a person.
  • Unclear error recovery.
  • Complex language and uncommon terms.
  • Unnecessary content, such as promotions.
  • Fast speech, or expecting fast inputs from the user.
  • Systems that were not tested with a wide range of users with different cognitive and learning disabilities.

User Stories and Personas

User Story



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