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Cognitive Accessibility Design Pattern: Provide Alternative Content for Complex Information and Tasks

User Need

I need contextually-relevant graphs and pictures to supplement text.

What to Do

Provide content that helps users understand complex information.

This should include redundant information for different user groups such as:

  • summaries of long documents and step-by-step information in easy to understand language,
  • explanation of choices and any disadvantages,
  • tables and charts,
  • symbols that are familiar to the user,
  • well-structured video content,
  • pictures and informational graphics, and
  • alternatives for numeric content.

Where there is alternative or supplemental content:

  • Provide an easy, single action mechanism for the user to be able to find and select the content format or version that is easiest for them to understand.
  • Dedicated help and alternative content should be clearly differentiated from primary content.
  • Make the relationship between the alternative content and the primary content clear.

How it Helps

The use of complex information, long documents, and complex data formats can present significant barriers to users with cognitive accessibility needs. Users should be able to understand the information and successfully complete described tasks without requiring further external assistance as much as possible.

Sometimes the content’s subject matter is complex. In this case, it is likely to need careful explanation, organization, and presentation so as many users as possible are able to understand without any mistakes, confusion, or need of assistance.

The way information is presented, such as a graph, diagram, or table, may make it more complex for some users. Here, a supporting description and guided interpretation will highlight the key features the user needs to understand.

Different people find different types of information easier to understand. This is particularly true for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. For example, some people have an impairment that affects numbers but not language, and other people have a language impairment but may intuitively understand numbers. Help may be provided in various forms, to support different users, for example:

  • Text “asides” providing explanation and help for diagrams.
  • A supporting chart or graph to illuminate text content.
  • Video clips that show the tasks being completed in steps.
  • A supplemental table, that is not complex.
  • Popup on hover explanations of keywords, possibly linked to a glossary.
  • A flow chart of steps in a process.

More Details

Recommended techniques for content relating to numbers and complex information (use whichever apply).

  • Charts or graphics are provided where they aid the comprehension of complex information.
  • Tables are provided where they aid the comprehension of information.
  • Where an understanding of mathematics is not a primary requirement for using this content, use one of the following:
    • Reinforce numbers with non-numerical concepts, e.g., Very Cold, Cold, Cool, Mild, Warm, Hot, Very Hot.
    • Once it is mature you can also use personalization semantics to add non-numerical concepts. See [[personalization-semantics-1.0]].
  • For content with sections use one of the following:
    • Enable semantics to add symbols to sections.
    • Add icons as an addition to headings, key short sentences and phrases to aid understanding.
    • However, as some people have difficulty remembering icons, use text with the icons.
      • Use clear icons or symbols that can easily be seen and expanded.
      • Use images understood by different users.
      • In left to right languages place the image to the left of the text.
  • Recommended techniques for content with more than 300 words
    • Provide an Easy to Understand summary using common terms and short blocks of text. For pieces of content with less than 300 words the heading may act as a summary.
    • Semantic headings are used to break the information down into a more manageable size and provide structure to the information being presented. This particularly benefits users of Assistive Technology.
    • The content owner identifies at least two keywords that aid comprehension for the user and these keywords are programmatically determinable and emphasized in the preferred modality of the user.

Getting Started

Provide explanatory content for complex information that is important for successful completion of a task including tasks in the real world.



  1. The techniques in the “more details” section above for long documents, documents with multiple sections, complex information, and numeric information. For example:
    • The explanation of a medical procedure and success rate statistics is amplified through the use of an additional text aside, a diagram, and a graph.
    • The multi-step process for applying for a visa is made easier to use by adding a flow chart of all the steps that are always visible. Each step in the flowchart has links to extra help and the current step is clearly highlighted.


  1. Long documents without a good structure and summary.
  2. Complex information and numeric information without extra support. For example:
    • A long text and data table of sales figures is shown without any explanation of the key features that relate to the content.

User Stories and Personas

User Story



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