Universal Access in the Information Society

, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 351–361 | Cite as

Simplicity in cognitive assistive technology: a framework and agenda for research

  • Clayton Lewis
Long Paper


Technology offers substantial benefits to the many people with some form of cognitive disability. But the power of technology often comes in a package whose complexity is a barrier to many users, leading to calls for designs, and especially designs for user interfaces, that are “simple”. This paper analyzes the idea of simplicity, and suggests (a) that simplicity in a user interface is not a unified concept, but rather has distinguishable facets, and (b) that simplicity must be defined in terms of the cognitive capabilities of a user, so that what is “simpler” for one user may be “more complex” for another. Despite (b), the prospects for universal design in this area are good, in that interface technology with the flexibility needed to produce “simple” interfaces for a range of users with different cognitive strengths will be of value in addressing the overall design space of interfaces for a broad audience. While it is possible to sketch the outlines of a useful theory of simplicity, the sketch reveals much that is not fully understood. It also reveals opportunities to rethink the architecture of user interfaces in a way that will benefit user interface development generally.


User interface design Cognitive disabilities 



The ideas in this paper were stimulated by discussion at a symposium on cognitive technologies at IBM Watson Research Center, October 6–7, 2005. I thank the organizers and attendees. I also thank Dr Cathy Bodine, Director of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Advancing Cognitive Technologies, and Dr Michael Williams, CTO of Caring Family LLC, for many useful conversations. I am grateful to the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research and to the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities for research funding. I thank three anonymous reviewers for many useful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Coleman Institute for Cognitive DisabilitiesUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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