Navigating Anxiety: The Impact of Web Design and Accessibility on Users with Anxiety and Mental Disorders

How to handle social anxiety at work

What is Anxiety & the Web Challenges That Come With it?

Anxiety disorders encompass various mental illnesses characterized by excessive fear, apprehension, and dread. These disorders include social anxiety, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, health anxiety, and panic disorders, each manifesting differently but sharing elements of heightened anxiety.

Web design and user experience (UX) significantly affect individuals with anxiety and panic disorders. Following discussions initiated by David Swallow on various platforms, several prevalent themes have emerged as contributors to these feelings:

  1. Urgency: Anything inducing a sense of urgency or scarcity can trigger anxiety. This includes persuasive notifications, time-limited transactions, and countdown timers. Even security features, such as two-factor authentication, can be stressful for some. The relentless nature of chat room platforms can also be overwhelming.

  1. Unpredictability: Websites and apps that are unpredictable in their user interface can cause apprehension. This unpredictability can manifest in unclear opt-in/opt-out marketing checkboxes and uncertainties about order review processes. Social media interactions, like accidentally “liking” a photo on Instagram, can lead to feelings of unpredictability and stress.

  1. Powerlessness: Users often feel powerless when websites hide essential information or make access difficult, such as contact details or account deactivation instructions. Targeted advertising, which tracks browsing habits to provide personalized ads, can also leave users feeling helpless. This is exacerbated by the feeling of having no privacy, leading to anxiety attacks.

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4. Sensationalism: Sensationalism in media content can worsen anxiety, particularly with the prevalence of fake news. Biased and negative reporting can exacerbate anxiety and depression, leading to panic and irrational fears. Medical information, in particular, is a source of concern, as exaggerated headlines and irresponsible reporting can have serious consequences for those with health anxiety.


*Provided by: A Web of Anxiety: Accessibility for People with Anxiety and Panic Disorders [Part 1]

By understanding and addressing these issues we can avoid or reduce anxiety and panic triggers on the web. In the next article (A Web of Anxiety: Accessibility for People with Anxiety and Panic Disorders [Part 2]), Swallow will offer some practical guidance on how to improve accessibility for people with anxiety and panic disorders but first address the deceptive practices of tech companies.

Designing for Anxiety

The Norwegian Consumer Council has criticized Facebook, Google, and Microsoft for their unethical, misleading, and exploitative use of dark patterns and privacy-intrusive default settings. Their report, titled “Deceived by Design,” exposes the deceptive and manipulative techniques these companies employ to coax users into revealing more personal information. Despite promises to enhance data privacy, such practices persist because they are financially rewarding. Many companies seem indifferent to the anxiety and stress their websites cause users, and they may even capitalize on such emotions. The article suggests practical guidance for enhancing web accessibility for individuals with anxiety and panic disorders. It highlights the lack of research on the relationship between these disorders and web accessibility but mentions efforts by organizations to address this gap. The Web Accessibility Initiative’s Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force and the Inclusive Design Principles provide valuable insights and success criteria (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 & Inclusive Design Principles) for designing with the needs of people with anxiety and panic disorders in mind.

Designing for users with anxiety poster from the Home Office: Do give users enough time to complete an action; Don't rush users or set impractical time limits; Do explain what will happen after completing a service; Don’t leave users confused about next steps or timeframes; Do make important information clear; Don’t leave users uncertain about the consequences of their actions; Do give users the support they need to complete a service; Don’t make support or help hard to access; Do let users check their answers before they submit them; Don’t leave users questioning what answers they gave.

The guidance includes recommendations such as:

  1. Eliminating unnecessary time limits and countdown timers to reduce anxiety-inducing urgency.

  1. Managing user expectations by making information clear and explaining the consequences of actions.

  1. Removing friction from user experiences and providing easy access to support and contact options.

  1. Allowing users to review and confirm their actions before finalizing them.

  1. Applying “positive friction” in certain contexts, such as financial transactions.

  1. Encouraging responsible reporting in journalism, particularly regarding health and medical topics.

Digital Inclusion for All Mental Disabilities

Regina Jankowski further explores web accessibility in her article, How to Create Accessible & Inclusive Digital Platforms for Those With Mental Health Disabilities. Although she discusses not only anxiety and panic disorders but all conditions that are “hidden” or “invisible”, like learning and cognitive impairments, speech and language disorders, and mental health disabilities. This is because a significant portion of the population has some form of inability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in four, or 61 million adults currently have some type of disability. The public health agency also notes more than half of Americans live with a mental health disorder, such as bipolar, depression, or general anxiety, with many people’s symptoms worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Individuals with mental health disabilities often face stigma and misunderstanding, which results in their experiences being dismissed as merely having a bad day. To create an inclusive and accessible digital environment for the mental health community, Jankowski recommends focusing on various design elements such as streamlined design, language, tone, imagery, fonts, and user-friendly portals. She highlights the importance of simplifying information presentation and avoiding overly complicated forms, which can be overwhelming and stressful for individuals with anxiety disorders.

For effective communication with and about individuals with mental health disabilities, the article recommends following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and ADA Guidelines (which was also recommended earlier by David Swallow). It encourages the use of inclusive language and provides specific recommendations for improving web accessibility, such as:

  • Add Relevant Headings & Lists
  • Evenly distributed white space throughout your content
  • Separate content into shorter, condensed paragraphs
  • Implement bulleted lists
  • Include logical reading order & organization
  • Use friendly fonts & softer color tones & hues
  • Properly coded search bars with easy navigation & relevant explanations
  • Minimize complexity to avoid cognitive overload
  • Incorporate diverse imagery without depicting those in distress or feelings of hopelessness
  • Avoid “timed” submission forms
  • Refrain from language that could be deemed offensive to those within the mental health community, such as insane, crazy, psycho, maniac, or nuts.
  • Don’t use stereotypical phrases reflecting negativity. instead of saying normal person vs. healthy person, instead say: person with a disability.

The article also highlights the business benefits of creating accessible and inclusive digital platforms, citing research that WCAG Level 2 compliance websites are expected to outperform competitors. Inclusivity is seen as a means to create a more connected world and reach a broader audience, ultimately fostering a more accessible world for those with disabilities.

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Links Used:

A Web of Anxiety: Accessibility for People with Anxiety and Panic Disorders [Part 1]

A Web of Anxiety: Accessibility for People with Anxiety and Panic Disorders [Part 2]

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1

Inclusive Design Principles

How to Create Accessible & Inclusive Digital Platforms for Those With Mental Health Disabilities

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Hi Audrey! I think that this blog post was extremely informational, as I feel that anxiety related to technology and navigability is so common in today’s day and age. The way you set up this blog post encouraged readability and using lists and headings helped it flow easily. I think the images you used were highly effective and all contributed to the information presented. Websites that are complicated, wordy, and leave users with questions can be very stressful to navigate. As someone who is working on a website right now for my personal portfolio, the concept of anxiety has been very prevalent in my design strategy. I found this interesting article that touches on the other side of this anxiety, which is from the designer’s POV. This helps to show that anxiety for users is just as prevalent as anxiety for designers. I hope that this article provides some valuable insight into the impact of anxiety on web design.
    https://matchboxdesigngroup.com/blog/web-designers-are-more-stressed-than-we-think/

  2. Hi Audrey, your blog post is well done. I enjoyed the topic as I am a psychology major and focus quite a bit of my studies on mental health disorders. You did a nice job of creating a blog post that has a conversational, calm tone. Furthermore, the tone was paired well with the content, and your blog’s structure was effective in designing against anxiety. The content was also very informational, and you had a good use of sources. While reading the section “Designing for Anxiety,” it made me think of the documentary “Social Dilemma,” which discusses the unethical side to social media, and more generally, design. Overall, your blog post is effective in conveying how design provokes anxiety, and what can be done to prevent it.
    Link to Social Dilemma documentary: https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224

  3. Hey Audrey, I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I think you did a great job explaining the impacts of how a website is designed on one’s anxiety. In particular, I like your use of both ordered and unordered lists to break apart information and make it easier to read. As I read your blog, I was able to notice the ways website design has had an impact on my own anxiety. For example, I have definitely fallen victim to the anxiety caused by the countdowns/timers on an online clothing store. As I was doing more research on the topic, I found a website that details more design flaws in websites that cause anxiety among users. Some of these include pop-ups and even hard to read fonts. However, while this post talks about pop-ups as being stressful to users, this website uses a pop-up to get a free newsletter. I don’t think that this website took this author’s advice.
    Anyways, here is the link to the post: https://www.pcmag.com/news/study-finds-bad-web-design-is-killing-us-all-with-stress

  4. Hey Audrey, this was a very thorough and informative blog post! I love the way you chose to tackle the broad topic of web design and the impact it has on accessibility for users with anxiety and mental disorders. The way you discuss elements of urgency, unpredictability, powerlessness, and sensationalism as site challenges for users with anxiety really puts certain accessibility issues into perspective and opens the door to many changes required for future websites. I really liked the incorporation of the fake news headlines within your post as they clarify the negative consequences on individuals’ anxiety. These types of visuals enhance your blog by clearing up any confusion for readers and improving the user experience by providing examples of what you are discussing. Another great visual used was the graphic of what to do and not to do when designing for a user experiencing anxiety, this was basically a creative list outlining the major aspects of how you should be designing your site. Your blog post got me thinking about what it must be like for someone with anxiety or other mental disorders attempting to design a site themselves. It made me wonder about some of the designing challenges that may develop during the process. After researching, I found an article from fastcompany.com that features a designer who turns his chronic anxiety into creative work. The article follows designer Matthew Santone on his journey of turning his conditions into strengths he can cultivate into his work. Great job on this post, very well-written.

    Link: https://www.fastcompany.com/90139038/a-designers-guide-to-conquering-anxiety

  5. Hi, Audrey. As someone with GAD, I’m pleasantly surprised at how in-depth and wonderful your blog post is about web design impacting users with anxiety/mental disorders. Funnily enough, though I’m well-aware of the manipulative techniques web designers tend to employ, I never thought of how it might affect my own anxiety. One positive recommendation that stood out to me was the implementation of friendlier fonts and colors. I am an absolute nerd for color theory, so I decided to include an article covering some color psychology in web design. On a general level, I agree certain colors should be considered over others if the intent is to create a calming effect; but on a deeper level I have to respectfully disagree. Speaking as a design major, web designers shouldn’t be picking colors only to appease users with mental disorders. A website for an online punk store should use dark or highly saturated colors. If it used pastel colors to reduce buying anxiety, it wouldn’t be “punk” anymore. Really, using color for specific features depends on a case-by-case basis in my opinion.

    Link: https://usersnap.com/blog/color-web-design/

  6. Hey Audrey! Immediately I was looking forward to your website, as someone who has had anxiety/depression problems in the past, this felt really relatable and welcoming. David Swallows’ discussion about themes was well formatted, I’ve experienced those things on websites before, and you’ve put them into words. And by understanding these issues and what causes them, we can be better equipped to deal with them and how to eliminate them from our websites. I also appreciate how, while your blog post circles around anxiety, you also included how to design for other mental disabilities. I do think some of your text blocks were pretty big, maybe breaking them down into some more lists or smaller paragraphs would help with it. I think adding another image or visual would help break up the monotony of paragraphs. Here’s a link I found similar to yours that was also helpful to me! https://www.inclusionhub.com/articles/improve-accessibility-inclusion-for-mental-health

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