Search Wizard Substitute for Text Queries: Discussion, Examples

How can a Web site be designed to make searching its resources as easy as possible for people with cognitive disabilities?  What would be a better search interface than the text-query, Google-based interfaced used by The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL)? (This is a follow-up my two previous posts, which describe the MADIL Web site’s search features.)

MADIL relies upon visitors to construct text-string search queries to find relevant information in the databases it indexes.  Visitors must determine how to describe an interest, which human-service-industry terms to use, and the appropriate search-query syntax.  This may be beyond the capabilities of the average Google-type-search user, as well those of people with cognitive disabilities.

Search Wizard

Perhaps a series of questions could be asked that would help define site visitors’ interests. As they are answered, the search results could progressively be narrowed.  Tools such as these are commonly known in the computer industry as wizards, which take a user through a task step-by-step.  For searching, the wizard would choose which set of questions to display next based upon a site visitor’s answers.  Unfortunately, coming up with sets of questions to ask and the decision-tree logic for all possible combinations of answers would be a lot of work, and would be highly unlikely to address all possible subjects of interest.

Example Search Wizard

A more economical approach is taken by, a site of resources for elders living in Massachusetts.  It has a feature called “Assess My Needs“.  Narrowing content by focusing on site visitors’ needs rather than requiring them to navigate it based upon how a developer decided it should be organized is a great aspect of this feature.  The vast majority of Web sites with similar features are designed using the latter orientation.

Step 1

The first page of “Assess My Needs” is a categorized list site visitors can select to define their interests.  A zip (postal) code is required to narrow results geographically.  The number of miles a visitor is willing to travel to receive services can also be entered.

Step 2

Submission of selected needs brings site visitors to a list of relevant general-need categories.  A prompt is presented to choose one.

Search Results

For all selections, the first record displayed is of the regional elder-care agency related to the zip code entered.  Below that is a list of programs, the number of which is determined by the specific needs selected and the number of miles entered, if any.  For each program, the list displays contact information, a brief description, and a link to the full record.

Possible Modifications

For people with cognitive disabilities, presenting a single page with forty-four possible, categorized choices may be overwhelming.  Perhaps the categories could be presented first, along with contextually-relevant imagery.  Selection of a category would produce a smaller set of choices.

This idea is represented by the Easy Health UK Web site.  It presents site visitors with a set of six content categories.  Sub-category lists of varying lengths are displayed on subsequent pages.  All choices are accompanied by a relevant photograph and by a text-to-speech option.

The Easy Health UK Web site’s interface is a content drill-down rather than a question-and-answer search wizard.  An advantage is that content is provided after two- or three clicks.  This may be impractical, however, for a search wizard on sites such as that contain thousands of records.  A possible compromise would be to implement a search wizard only for common, broad-based, general needs such as housing or medical care.  Of course, relevant imagery and text-to-speech along the way would be a great addition.

Related, Previous Posts

Note: No endorsement of Easy Health UK or of is intended or implied.

Helpful Search Features on Site for People with Disabilities

The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL) provides a simple search interface for thousands of records in disparate databases. This post examines the components of its search tool, and how effective this kind of searching may be for people with cognitive disabilities.  (This is a follow up to my previous post about MADIL’s other features designed to make searching as easy as possible.)

Searching by Text Query

The search tool, located on the home page, works just like the Google search engine upon which its technology is based. The act of entering and submitting a search term is the easy part.  Coming up with effective search terms is much more difficult.  Site visitors have to submit search terms that best define the subject in which they are interested and that match the terminology used in the database records being searched. To obtain the most accurate results, multi-term searche queries have to be constructed, and include filtering operators such as “OR” and “-“.

Constructing A Search Query

If a site visitor wanted to find summer recreation programs for people with intellectual disabilities, but did not want any located in Boston, an effective search query might be:

  • camp -Boston “intellectual disabilities”
    • At the time of this writing, 28 results are produced; searching on just the word “camp” produces more than five times that amount.

So, to construct the above search query, a visitor would at least have to know:

  • camps are popular summer recreation programs;
  • the proper disability term;
  • that multi-word terms should be in quotes; and
  • how to use search-term operators.

All of this knowledge is perhaps beyond the capability of the average user of Google-type searches. For people with cognitive disabilities, the need to construct such a search query may be prohibitive.  Moreover, sorting through search results, particularly the great number produced by poorly-constructed search terms, can be confounding for anyone.

Filtering Search Results

MADIL is constructed to help site visitors with search results.

  • Upon the submission of a search term, results are categorized. For example, the menu of results for the query “advocacy” is pictured below.  Testing has shown categorization of search results is helpful.  However, this is the beginning of seeing search results that are not written in plain language.  People with intellectual disabilities may not know, for instance, that “physician” means “doctor”.

Menu of search results categorized and counted.

  • If a large number of results are displayed, site visitors are prompted to refine their search.  This is useful advice to help site visitors realize their search query could be better, but only if they know how to improve it.
  • Search Tips are provided. Their concrete, simple examples would be useful for site visitors willing and able to experiment with constructing effective search queries.  Ultimately, this may prove too frustrating for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities.
  • Hundreds of common search terms are set up to trigger helpful tips.  For example, the top of this list of fact sheets related to the search term “housing” shows three such tips.


People who use MADIL do not have to learn to use the different search interfaces of its partners’ Web sites. As can be seen in the list above, MADIL has many features that attempt to make easier the finding of disability-specific resources.  For people with intellectual disabilities, however, MADIL may not be as easy to use as it could be.  I will ponder relevant, possible improvements in future blog posts.

Finding & Understanding Web Info: Considerations for People with CD

How can a search tool be created that is easy to use by people with cognitive disabilities, and indeed by everyone?  How can search results be designed and written to be understood by the widest audience?  Considerations related to these questions are the subjects of this- and the next several blog posts.

So far, in my interviews of people with intellectual disabilities, I have been told that finding relevant information on the Web is difficult.  This is true for many people.  How can searching be made easier for the kind of content that would be of interest to people with cognitive disabilities?  Well, I know of one effort to make finding such information easier for people with disabilities in general.

Example Web Site: MADIL

The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL) is a good Web site to review because it is designed to provide a simple search interface for thousands of records in disparate databases.  It is a single point of entry to the Web sites of its partners (listed on the MADIL home page).  All contain disability-specific information for people residing in Massachusetts.

In this post and the next, I describe the MADIL features created to make searching as easy as possible, and how effective they may be for people with cognitive disabilities.


MADIL meets the accessibility standards of the time (2007) I created it.  It does not have ones intended specifically for people with cognitive disabilities.  Such features, with which I will experiment on the future Clear Helper Web site, include options for easy- and standard versionstext-to-speech; and plain-language content.

Directory of Resources

MADIL has “Quick Guides”, which are categorized sets of links to resource Web sites.  They were set up to be used by site visitors who find MADIL’s search tool to be difficult to use, or who want to find resources grouped by subject matter.  That’s good for people with cognitive disabilities. The Quick Guides home page, pictured below, also has a couple features that are good for people with cognitive disabilities.

  1. Its first link is to a list of phone numbers site visitors can call for help. This means they can receive personalized assistance determining which resources are relevant.  They don’t have to rely upon coming up with effective search terms or figure out the often complicated terminology and acronyms inherent to the resulting information.
  2. It uses contextually-relevant images for each link (although I now realize they are too small). Such imagery can help visitors grasp the meaning of the associated content.

Quick Guides home page: list of categorized links with relevant images

Content In Languages Other Than English

MADIL has a translation feature based on Google technology, which enables searching and results in languages other than English. This does make content more available to a wider audience.  Unfortunately, even the best of readers will find that it is good enough only to grasp the gist of the content. People with cognitive disabilities, who speak languages other than English, will thus not find this feature compelling.

Next Up: Search Tool

MADIL’s primary interface element is a text- based search tool. An analysis of its components will be the subject of my next blog post.

Tutorial Suggestions from a Self Advocate & a Person with ID

I met today with Anne, a self advocate, a co-founder of Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong (MASS), and a person who uses the Web daily.  Anne is also a person with an intellectual disability.

Popular Request

When I started working with Anne to resolve some issues with her computer, the very first action she asked me to take was to increase its font size.  This is a common request amongst other people with intellectual disabilities.

Increasing a computer’s font size will be the subject of the first tutorial for the future Clear Helper Web site. I could set up the site so it auto-detects the operating system of a visitor’s computer and displays the relevant instructions.  This would be more useful than asking visitors to choose a set of instructions based upon which operating system they use.  Many people do not know what an operating system is, let alone which version their computers use.

Anne’s Suggestions for Tutorials

For future tutorials, Anne suggested instructions on how to:

  • increase the font size of operating systems and/or Web browsers;
  • save for future use the Web site links sent via e-mail;
  • save files, such as attachments, into folders; and
  • find the contact information for state legislators.

Note: The last suggestion is one Anne has in common with Mary, another self advocate I interviewed.


Anne also asked me to show her how to find information using The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL). I designed the site to meet accessibility standards of the time. However, it has become clear to me it is not as accessible as it could be for people with intellectual disabilities.  Its purpose and how I might improve its accessibility will be the subjects of a future blog post.

UMMS Faculty Position Open: Web Accessibility for People with Intellectual Disabilities

Below is the official recruiting advertisement for a new faculty position at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I work.  It was recently decided we should include for the position the research area of Web accessibility, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities.  I would like to get the word out through our accessibility community.  If you or anyone you know may be interested in this opportunity, please contact me directly via e-mail ( or via Twitter (@ClearHelper).  Please spread the word!  Thank you.

Faculty Positions

Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center

University of Massachusetts Medical School

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), invites applications for research faculty positions with specialization include any of the following areas: behavior analysis, psychopharmacology, child clinical, health psychology, gerontology and behavioral medicine.  We are especially interested in research programs that are appropriate for individuals with developmental disabilities.  Programs are located in Central Massachusetts and suburban Boston.

Qualifications include an appropriate degree (e.g., M.D., Ph.D., Ed.D.), an established track record in NIH funded research, and potential to contribute to the Center’s current and future directions.  Start-up funding and a range of faculty incentive programs are available.

Applications & Information

To apply for any of the above positions, please submit via e-mail a CV, contact information for three or more professional references, and a statement of professional interests to Dr. Charles Hamad  For all of the above positions, review of application will begin immediately and continue until the positions are filled.  Each position offers a competitive salary and excellent benefits.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School is an Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action employer. Women and minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply.

Need Help Finding Video Tutorials for People with Intellectual Disabilities

I would like to find video tutorials designed for people with intellectual disabilities.  If you know of a source for such videos, would you please share it?

A comment to this post would be best.  Alternatively, information could be sent via Twitter (@ClearHelper) or via e-mail (

The future Clear Helper Web site will contain video tutorials.  I want to learn techniques from those already created.

Thank you!

Readable Tool Better Than One David Pogue Says Is Best Tech Idea Of 09

Readability is a free Web-browser bookmarklet that strips all distractions from Web pages. David Pogue, the personal-technology columnist for The New York Times, called it the “… single best tech idea of 2009 …” and a “… real life-changer …”.

Pogue, D. (2009-12-31). The Pogie Awards for the Year’s Best Tech Ideas. New York Times. Retrieved from

It is indeed a promising tool.  Yet, as I pointed out in my review of Readability, it has a significant problem. For many Web pages I tested, it could not determine which was the main text content, or it displayed only a snippet of it.

Readable (created by Gabriel Coarna)

Readable, also a free Web-browser bookmarklet, includes the same configuration features, has more of them, and has a feature that solves Readability’s problem.  If Readable can not determine a page’s main text content, it enables users to identify the text they want to read.  A user holds down the Control (Ctrl) key, selects the text with the mouse, and clicks it.  Readable then shows that text free of extraneous content. (Instructions are on the “Tutorial” page.)

Readable can be used with Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer.


Conveying Abstract Concepts of Easy- & Standard Web Site Versions

I have been struggling with how to convey to people with intellectual disabilities the abstract concepts of easy- and standard Web site versions.  At the time of this writing, the experimental Clear Helper Web site has text links of “Easy” and “Standard” to switch between versions.

How do I make these choices more concrete for people?  I have two ideas.  Each involves a set of buttons that visually represent the two versions.  Perhaps the text links could be replaced by their respective buttons.  Alternatively, they could bring users to a page that contains the buttons and explains the other accessibility features of the Web site.

Wireframe Buttons

Displayed below is my first attempt at wireframe buttons.  The “Standard” button shows rectangular outlines of its version’s sections: header, primary-content column, sidebar and footer.  The “Easy” button shows an outline for its version’s only section, that of primary content.

button showing single, large box and 'Easy' text labelbutton showing rectangular outlines of page sections and 'Standard' text label

Screen-Shot Buttons

Because the wireframe buttons may themselves be too abstract, a better way of representing the two versions might be to use screen-shot buttons for them.  Displayed below are scaled-down screen shots of the standard- and the easy versions of the Clear Helper home page as it is now.  Each is accompanied by an explanatory caption.

screen shot of easy home page version
Click this picture to see only the main part of this Web site's pages
screen shot of standard home page version
Click this picture to always see all parts of this Web site's pages

It is likely that I will create sample Web sites using each of these methods, and will ask people which they find the easiest to understand.


This is a follow-up to these previous blog posts: