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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
The guidance includes recommendations such as:
- Eliminating unnecessary time limits and countdown timers to reduce anxiety-inducing urgency.
- Managing user expectations by making information clear and explaining the consequences of actions.
- Removing friction from user experiences and providing easy access to support and contact options.
- Allowing users to review and confirm their actions before finalizing them.
- Applying “positive friction” in certain contexts, such as financial transactions.
- 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.