Designing for users with anxiety or panic disorders

Lewis Wake
Tuesday 25 February 2020

This guidance is for web and digital professionals who want to make sure that their service is optimised for users who have anxiety or panic disorders.

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives.

In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK. This is 12% of the population. (source: Mental Health Foundation).

Anxiety disorders comprise a range of mental illnesses that are characterised by excessive feelings of fear, apprehension, and dread.

  • Social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of being embarrassed, humiliated, or judged negatively by others in social situations.
  • Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces.
  • Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.
  • Panic disorders describe sudden, frequent, and intense feelings of panic or fear, sometimes for no clear reason.

The WCAG standards highlight how those with anxiety or panic disorders access and navigate websites and how to cater to these individuals. This article summarises the top tips for best practice.

Stopwatch graphic

Give users enough time to complete an action

Don’t rush users or set impractical time limits.

People with anxiety might take longer to complete something because they are cautious or fear getting it wrong. Make sure any time limits on actions are generous.

There are a lot of dark patterns on the web that are designed specifically to trick users into doing things they might not want to do. One of these dark patterns is countdown timers which demand urgency.

Any user of a vacation website has likely encountered persuasive notifications urging them to “Hurry, only two tickets remain!” or “Book now as six others are viewing this hotel”.

These pressures can be a nuisance, but they are exit points for users with anxiety or panic disorders.

WCAG 2.1 success criterion 2.2.1: Timing Adjustable requires sites to let users turn off, adjust or extend time limits, while 2.2.6: Timeouts ensures that users are made aware of timeouts.

A positive use of time limits is how Medium provide an estimation for the number of minutes each article takes a user to read. This simple tool helps readers plan and make informed decisions simply by scanning a list of articles. The exact same way you can determine what video you would like to view based on its time length.

User success graphic

Explain what will happen after completing a service

Don’t leave users confused about next steps or timeframes.

Services that end without any concrete guidance on what will happen next can increase users’ anxiety. For example, if someone renews their passport, tell them the next steps and how long those steps normally take.

The GOV.UK Design System enforces the use of confirmation pages to let users know they’ve completed a task or transaction. They reassure users that they have completed a transaction and help them understand what to expect next.

Bonus article: Do users return to your service after finishing?

Important information graphic

Make important information clear

Don’t leave users uncertain about the consequences of their actions.

People will become more anxious on services that have consequences for them personally.

Clear, simple information is important. Every element on a website should justify its inclusion.

If your service needs to warn users about the consequence of their actions, make sure you give them enough information to make the correct decision, so they can continue confidently.

If you want to create simple websites, stop expecting users to read your content. Design and write for a website that is easily scannable.

Bonus article: How to create compelling simple websites

Support graphic

Give users the support they need to complete a service

Don’t make support or help hard to access.

Users with anxiety are more likely to need extra support to complete a service.

Users who cannot complete a service on their own might need support from someone else. At every point of interaction within a digital service, give users a way to access support from a human.

This point of entry should be clearly marked and consistently placed across all pages.

If your service does not offer immediate support, provide links to those that do. If the service is monitored, tell users when they can expect a response. For example:

A representative will get back to you within 48 hours.

Bonus article: Four ways to improve digital customer service

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Let users check their answers before they submit them

Don’t leave users questioning what answers they gave.

We can reassure users by giving them the opportunity to check and change their answers before they submit. Without this step, users are less informed which could increase anxiety.

It adds benefit to allow the user to locate where they are in a service journey.

Once a user has begun using the digital tool, show them what they have accomplished so far, and prepare them for the next steps.

Without a chance to review their answers, users find that they are unable to change their answers once a form has been submitted. Require users to confirm their answers before submission. As well as mental well-being, this can lower the chance of answer errors and reduce the cost of modifying answers later.

Consistent navigation

Keep navigation consistent

Don’t force users into unfamiliar settings when a service is started.

WCAG 2.1 success criterion 3.2.3: Consistent Navigation requires websites to have a logical coherence and harmonious uniformity.

Ensuring that repeated components occur in the same order on each page of a site helps users become comfortable that they will able to predict where they can find things on each page.

The impact of inconsistent navigation can be very distressing. It can cause a person to fail at the task they are trying to perform. The task may be of critical importance, such as signing up for health insurance, travel, banking, or booking accommodation.

When navigation is inconsistent, people may begin to doubt their own ability to remember the location and order of menus and menu items. Self-doubt can be a big contributor to increased anxiety.

It might not occur to the person with an anxiety disorder that the lack of consistency is a result of the design of the website.

Bonus article: Why is consistency important in web design?

Resources for this article

As always, remember to keep it simple!

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