Neurodivergence + Slack Accessibility

August 2023-December 2023
Project Overview
This page is currently being updated!

In this project, I conducted research to understand current productivity and comfort barriers for neurodivergent users to inform design decisions that improve Slack's accessibility. Along with my team, I worked with an accessibility industry expert to understand current issues in Slack for people with symptoms of ADHD and Autism. The goal of this project was to redesign Slack's interface to support the experience and productivity of individuals both with and without symptoms of neurodiversity.

This is a semester-long project for PSYC 6023: Research Methods for HCI as part of Georgia Tech's MSHCI program.

Advised by Subject Matter Expert: Hannah Glazebrook, Senior Accessibility Expert
My Role
Mixed-methods UX Researcher: Product Research, User Research, User Interviews, Contextual Inquiry, Qualitative Coding, Data Analysis, UX Design, Prototyping, Wireframing, Usability Testing

In this project, my role was pivotal in guiding the research and user experience design process. As a team lead for user research, I spearheaded the research process for user interviews, contextual inquiries, and data synthesis to inform our design decisions.

Team Flywheel
Lola Famulegun
Jahnavi Kolakaluri
Zelia Liu
Binta Moncur
Swathi Ram
Problem Space
Neurodivergence, encompassing conditions like ADHD and autism, affects over 8.7 million adults in the US. Due to the pandemic, there has been a rapid shift to remote work which is now embraced by over 33% of the workforce. In this shift, Slack has become a widely used workplace platform; however, our initial research indicates Slack does not address the diverse needs and challenges of neurodivergent individuals, preventing a supportive and productive environment for all users.
Neurodivergence encompasses a range of brain functions and learning processes that differ from typical neurocognitive patterns. It includes conditions like ADHD and autism, affecting an estimated 15-20% of the U.S. population. Despite being a significant portion of the population, neurodivergent individuals often face barriers in traditional workplace environments. The challenges they encounter with platforms like Slack — issues with productivity, focus, and navigating social interactions online — highlight a broader issue: the necessity of making workplaces more accessible and inclusive for neurodivergent employees.
Identifying the Problem
In the initial phase of our project, we identified that Slack's design, while efficient for many, does not cater adequately to the needs of neurodivergent individuals, specifically those with ADHD and autism. The core problem lays in the platform's potential to overstimulate users with its multitude of features, leading to difficulties in communication, task management, and productivity. Our aim was to reimagine Slack as an inclusive space that reduces cognitive load, streamlines workflows, and offers customizable options to meet the diverse needs of all its users, enhancing the overall effectiveness of digital teamwork and workplace productivity.

With the identified problem space in mind, I formulated the following research questions at the inception of the project:
  • How can Slack be optimized to better support nonverbal communication and reduce misinterpretation for neurodivergent users with ADHD and autism, both in individual and team settings?
  • What strategies and design elements can be implemented in Slack to improve the discoverability of existing features, ensuring that neurodivergent users can access and benefit from these tools more effectively?
  • How can the user interface and user experience of Slack be redesigned to reduce cognitive load, streamline the workspace, and provide customizable options that minimize sensory distractions for neurodivergent users?
  • What specific features, customization options, or settings should be introduced in Slack to provide neurodivergent users with a balance between real-time interaction and asynchronous communication, accommodating their varying needs and communication preferences?
  • In what ways can Slack be enhanced to better assist neurodivergent users with time management, task prioritization, and the establishment of structured routines, ensuring that these individuals can effectively manage their work responsibilities and improve productivity?
Background research
Our background research into Slack and neurodivergence laid the groundwork for understanding the unique experiences of neurodivergent individuals with digital communication platforms. We discovered that while Slack is designed to improve workplace efficiency, it can inadvertently hamper productivity for users with ADHD and autism due to its multiple features like notifications and channels. These elements often cause distractions, preventing neurodivergent users from maintaining focus compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Our research underscored a recurring theme: the design elements that assist many users can simultaneously become obstacles for those with neurodiversity.
Despite Slack's important efforts to address these issues, such as streamlining the sidebar and introducing subtler notification badges in 2022, our research indicated that there was still room for significant improvements. We reviewed a variety of sources, including industry blogs, academic research, and Slack's own publications, to explore how communication on Slack differs for neurodivergent individuals and how other platforms approach accessibility.

Our inquiry extended to the examination of existing features within Slack that might inadvertently pose barriers to this user group and what the current design system excels at or falls short of, particularly from an accessibility standpoint. Moreover, our investigation into other communication and collaboration platforms revealed varying approaches to accommodating users with symptoms of neurodivergence. We questioned the effectiveness of these solutions and what we could learn from them to inform our redesign of Slack.
By examining how neurodivergent users interact with Slack and similar products, our research aimed to uncover the nuances of user behavior and communication styles. This background research was essential for informing our approach and ensuring that our design interventions were well-grounded in user needs and industry standards. Through completing this research, we then chose our key research methods.
Chosen Research Methods
In this project, we employed a multifaceted research methodology, each chosen for its potential to illuminate different aspects of the user experience. These methods formed a robust foundation for our design process, aimed at crafting a Slack experience that is truly accessible and beneficial for users.
Research Method: User Interviews
In order to delve into the nuanced experiences of neurodivergent (ND) individuals using Slack, we began with user interviews. I played a lead role in this process, serving as the principal participant recruiter, developing the interview guide, conducting the interviews, leading qualitative coding, and deriving actionable insights.
During this process, my team interviewed 5 individuals who experience neurodivergence. I focused on the following goals throughout this method:
  • Understand Specific Neurodivergent Experiences: Capture the unique ways neurodivergent individuals use Slack, focusing on their individual experiences and challenges.
  • Identify Slack's Usability Barriers: Determine specific features or lack thereof that hinder the productivity and comfort of neurodivergent users on Slack.
  • Discover Desired Slack Features: Discover which Slack features or potential enhancements neurodivergent users feel would better support their communication and workflow needs.
As we conducted these interviews, I was able to speak directly and understand the experiences of these users. We were able to collect personal, rich qualitative data that played a key role in this project. I lead my team in utilizing qualitative coding to draw insights from this data. I began by developing a codebook that segregated data into personal and technical categories, which provided a framework to analyze the diverse feedback of neurodivergent users. Along with my team, I then meticulously coded the data to discover trends and patterns among these users.
After the coding process, I combed through the data to highlight key themes in the data. I sought to transform the needs our participants communicated to actionable insights that would inform future design decisions. I synthesized the following important insights from the data:
Research Method: Contextual Inquiry
Our contextual inquiry began with the intention of observing how neurodivergent users had tailored Slack to best support their use of the platform. However, when we conducted our first interview, I had a realization while speaking with the participant— many users are unaware of Slack's full range of customization options. This insight led us to pivot our approach. Instead observing users’ current settings, we instead guided each participant through all customizable settings, the preferences setting, within Slack. I asked them to talk through each section and their motivations for each change they would make. This shift not only highlighted the issue of discoverability but also allowed us to witness users tailor their settings in real-time.

This pivot became a key point of discovery. I was able to pinpoint crucial design flaws, particularly surrounding the discoverability of accessibility features. Watching users interact with the settings brought to the forefront the need for a more intuitive design that could be easily navigated by all users, regardless of neurodiversity. Additionally, users walked us through their typical workflow on Slack as well as any customizations they had done outside of the settings. By utilizing the same foundations of qualitative coding from the user interview method, the contextual inquiry revealed several insights that directly correlated to potential design implementations:
Research Method: Comparative Analysis
Next, we conducted a comparative analysis by examining the user experience and feature sets across Slack and two other major communication platforms: Discord and Microsoft Teams. We chose these two platforms based on our their relevance from our initial market research as well as the experiences communicated by our user interview participants. The focus of this comparative analysis was to understand how neurodivergent users interact with these platforms, in comparison to Slack, and how their experiences could be improved.

To assess each platform's performance, we developed a checklist addressing various dimensions of interest such as onboarding experience, degree of customization, visual and textual overload, and ease of workflow integration. This allowed for a structured and quantifiable approach to compare features that are critical to the user experience of neurodivergent individuals.

The analysis revealed that Slack has a significant edge in customization, yet this advantage is underutilized due to cognitive overload during the onboarding process. Discord stood out in its organizational structure, hinting at UI enhancements that could be adopted by Slack. Microsoft Teams was acknowledged for its collaborative features, though it could benefit from reduced textual complexity. We created a chart ranking the platforms on the specified elements of analysis for quick visual comparison and ease of interpretation. Below is the checklist and chart:
Research Method: Subject Matter Expert Interviews
In order to gain in-depth knowledge of practical insights on Slack’s current design motivations and accessibility considerations, we arranged interviews with Maripaz Pacheco, an associate User Researcher at Slack, and Hannah Glazebrook, our mentor and accessibility expert at Ceridian. The goals of these interviews was to provide deeper, expert insights to inform our future design decisions from the perspective of accessibility and Slack’s standards. I sought to answer the following questions through these interviews:
  • What are fundamental accessibility concerns to know for our research?
  • What are current accessibility testing tools and method that would fit our research direction?
  • What are the perceived challenges of users that are currently identified by the Slack team?What are the most effective ways that Slack conducts user research?
  • What are the most effective ways that Slack conducts user research?
Speaking to Maripaz allowed us to learn firsthand the issues that Slack users face, as recognized by Slack's UX team. Her insights were grounded in the company's awareness of user challenges, offering us insight into the concerns that Slack is currently aware of. She elaborated on the diverse user research methods employed by Slack, including usability testing, user interviews, and diary studies, that we then evaluated to integrate into our research process.

Hannah advised on measures to develop better accessibility in digital design by grounding us in the principles of WCAG and demonstrating the use of tools like WAVE, Microsoft Accessibility Insight, IBM Equal Access, and Google Lighthouse for initial assessments. Additionally, Hannah pointed out that while automated tools provide a significant starting point, they have limitations and a tendency to focus mainly on visual and keyboard navigation aspects. After this interview, we initially chose accessibility testing as one of our research methods. We utilized multiple accessibility scanners to assess Slack's interface but the results revealed only a few errors and warnings, primarily highlighting subtle visual issues rather than significant accessibility problems. This process revealed important visual accessibility considerations but ultimately was used as supplementary research rather than a main method.
Research Method: Secondary Research
Recognizing the limitations of automated web scanners and tools in evaluating Slack's accessibility, we conducted comprehensive secondary research initiative as our final research method at this state. Our goal was to answer our initial research questions of understanding neurodivergent users experiences on Slack, to evaluate Slack's existing accessibility initiatives, and to establish robust design guidelines that would cater to neurodivergent inclusivity.

In this research, we aimed to align our design strategy with actual user needs and Slack's own accessibility framework. By immersing ourselves in Slack’s internal forums and user feedback channels as well as performing accessibility tests, we synthesized the following information:
Additionally, by expanding our knowledge across previous research methods in combination with this secondary research, we gained a profound understand of lived experiences of neurodivergence. We acknowledge that these experience can differ widely based on an individual’s specific condition and its severity. The following themes aim to illustrate underlying shared challenges and strengths across neurodivergence experiences:
Research Insights Synthesized
Our secondary research inspired the creation of a “checklist” to support user needs and design needs for each major theme we drew. With each user need and behavior, design implications are drawn to support ND Slack users.
Additionally, to synthesize our research findings, I highlighted the pain points of neurodivergent users on Slack, opportunities for redesign, as well as our toolboxes:
This page is currently being updated. Please check out my recent project, Informed Relocation, in the meantime!
Informed Relocation


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