<title-serif>Neurodiverse designer Camila Méndez on building products that work for<title-serif><title-sans> more people<title-sans>

Beyond designer Camila Méndez shares her story alongside five practical ways to design to include the most users.

Customer Experience
5 min read
Jarrod Tredway
Jarrod Tredway

Jarrod, Head of Brand Strategy at Beyond, brings an inclusive lens to the world of work.

A gallery of our Experience Designer, Camila, posing with a laptop and wearing a bright leather bomber jacket
Images by Jarrod Tredway [/profiles/jarrod-tredway], Head of Brand Strategy

“Not everyone sees with the same brain,” says Camila Méndez, her bright auburn video background with Dalí-esque bookshelves pixelating as she shifts her weight on her chair. She pauses, then repeats herself: “Not everyone sees with the same brain. When you design for the margins, you always improve the middle.”

Camila is a designer at Beyond with over five years of experience in product design. She is also autistic, a diagnosis she received late in life that finally helped her make sense of some of the unique challenges she faced personally and professionally. For Camila, her autism is a gift that helps her take on design and math challenges as simply as breathing, but it also makes simple tasks like standing in line at the bank seem impossible. As Camila puts it, “Standing in line to do something like drop off a check is my math.”

“When you design for the margins, you always improve the middle.”

<quote-author>Camila Méndez<quote-author>

<quote-author-title>Senior Experience Designer<quote-author-title>

An estimated 1 in 5 people exhibit some form of neurodivergence, and autism is just one part of the spectrum: For some, challenges involve relating letters and words due to dyslexia or simply paying attention due to ADHD. For Camila, it’s been a hard journey trying to work within organizations set up for neurotypical employees, but her neurodivergence has also been like a super power:

By experiencing the need for inclusive design practices as a product user, she has been able to improve companies’ design practices to be more naturally inclusive. Here, Camila shares five key practices she views as essential when designing with neurodiversity in mind.

1. Keep text and design simple

One of the common challenges amongst neurodiverse users is making sense of busy designs. When there are large blocks of text, a complicated array of images, or even a design flow that looks beautiful but doesn’t directly inform what to do next, it can shut down the neurodiverse brain. The remedy is simplicity, which benefits not just neurodiverse users, but all users. Chris Wu of Thrive Thinking writes:

“Achieving simplicity in design helps you stay dialed into your user’s needs, makes it feel more like you hear them, and allows you to efficiently focus on solutions that best address the specific problem you’re solving for.”

Simple design includes:

  • Short, direct copy
  • White space
  • Logical flows with clear calls-to-action
  • Purposeful use of illustrations, images, and video

To make blocks of text even easier to process for people with ADHD, specifically, product developers might also consider including functionality like Bionic Reading to make content easier to process.

Keyboard keys that spell 'shift'

2. Provide adjustable options

Camila is well acquainted with the back-and-forth arguments designers have about things like the merits or failures of dark-mode on apps and websites. “You don’t have to like dark mode to make it an option for someone who needs it, though,” Camila shares with a smile. As a designer with the neurodiverse user in mind, Camila knows that dark-mode can be an incredible tool to help some people with focus.

This principle applies to all aspects of adjustability: Product designers and engineers don’t need to make the choice on setting personalizations, they just need to provide the option. Not only can this help with things like focus, readability, and flow, but it also helps the neurodiverse user feel empowered to craft an experience that sets them up for success.

3. Ensure calls-to-action are clear

For many neurodiverse users, a website or app can be overwhelming even in their best iterations. Loss of focus, overstimulation, and the inability to pick up on inference all play into the challenges neurodiverse users have when using a product.

This is amplified to an even greater degree when the calls-to-action aren’t consistent and clear throughout the product. Since everyone’s brain works differently, a designer can’t expect a user to inherently know what to do next within a product. Some guidelines for keeping calls-to-action clear include:

  • Issue one, maybe two calls-to-action in any given place.
  • Anticipate the basic next step a user needs to move through the product.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what the user will figure out on their own.
Keyboard keys that spell 'error'

4. Make error codes clear and easy to identify

Sometimes, something unexpected happens in a product. For Camila, her autism can make it hard to understand, let alone find, error messages that are clearly marked.

In order to help the neurodiverse brain work through an error code, Camila suggests making sure there is more than one design attribute calling attention to the message, such as a high-contrast color change plus an error message in a weighted font placed right next to where user attention is needed. An error message also needs to be easy to understand — a code with a cryptic number or one written in developer-speak doesn’t help any type of user figure out what to do next.

When an error code is hard to find or understand, frustration with the product can rise, which takes a particular toll on neurodiverse users who already experience higher levels of stress and anxiety on the whole. Designing for the neurodiverse user means having a heightened empathy for these types of realities and building with them in mind.

Keyboard keys that spell 'Alt'

5. Provide multiple ways to do one thing

One of the many assets of the neurodiverse mind is the ability to process the world through a unique and creative lens. Camila loves to ask her other neurodiverse friends to give her an image of how they process and remember things. “One friend told me that remembering things is like reaching into the cushions of an old couch: Whatever comes up is what she remembers!”

To account for this in product design, it’s important that product designers give users the ability to accomplish any given thing in multiple ways. Camila gives the example of an online checkout flow: If a customer wants to get rid of something in their cart, a more visual processor might look for a trash icon next to the product, but someone more numbers oriented, like Camila, would naturally try to click on the quantity to try and zero it out.

Providing multiple routes to the same outcome is a powerful way to account for people who might naturally process a product in a different way.

A more inclusive future in product design

Camila recognizes that still not everyone sees neurodiversity as an asset. Companies can be slow to educate themselves or adopt more inclusive design practices. But Camila is hopeful. “Neurodiversity is an asset that ultimately makes product design better for everyone. If a company wants to make inclusive design a reality, they should start by hiring neurodiverse people.”

Customer Experience
5 min read
Jarrod Tredway
Jarrod Tredway

Jarrod, Head of Brand Strategy at Beyond, brings an inclusive lens to the world of work.