Teaching Web Searching To People With Cognitive Disabilities

I have often seen people with intellectual disabilities struggle with how to perform Web searches during my interviews with them. The same problem was described by Henny Swan in her article, “‘Where’s my Googlebox?!’ – adventures in search for silver surfers“. It and its subsequent discussion inspired me to write this post.

I think there are two principles that could be used to teach Web searching to people with cognitive disabilities. For the purposes of this post, I am defining “searching” solely as the mechanics of submitting text via a search box.

That search boxes have the same- or similar characteristics, whether they are part of a Web browser, a Web site, or a search engine, means that learning to use them may not be difficult.  People could be taught to recognize search boxes and to submit simple searches with them.

First Principle

Search boxes can easily be recognized / located.

  • Appearance
    • All search boxes are rectangular and have white backgrounds. Many contain the word “Google” or have it and/or the Google logo nearby.
      • There are exceptions, but usually due to poor design.
  • Location
    • Search boxes within the latest versions of popular Web browsers (Internet Explorer 8.07, Firefox 3.6.3, Opera 10.53 and Safari 5.0) are located in the top, right corner of the browser window.
      • An exception is Chrome 5.0. In my opinion, this is one of Chrome’s accessibility problems.
    • Fortunately for people who use browsers such as Chrome, search boxes can still be found at the top, right corner of the screen because that is the common placement convention of many Web sites.
      • Search engines are the significant exception.

Second Principle

Search boxes can be used in the same, 3-step way.

  1. Prepare the search box for text entry by tabbing to it with the keyboard.
  2. Enter text.
  3. Invoke the search with the Enter / Return key.

Unneeded Training

  • To use a search box, people need not learn to discriminate between a browser, a site, and a search engine. Recognizing a search box is enough.
  • A mouse could be used to click inside a search box to prepare it for text entry, but I think the related instruction would be an unnecessary complication. Likewise, people could be trained to invoke searches with a mouse, but such instruction would be confusing for users when encountering a search box without an activation button.


Teaching the mechanics of search-box use may have advantages.

  • The resultant skills acquisition could generalize to encompass the search boxes of search engines.
  • Using a browser’s search box would provide consistent interface interaction across Web sites.


  • Such training would likely require revisiting over a multi-month period of consistent Web activity.
  • People being trained would need, at the least, basic literacy- and keyboard skills.


  • Constructing effective search terms and interpreting search results are beyond the scope of the proposed principles.
  • I am interested in how to teach people with cognitive disabilities to use the Web because that is my intention for the future Clear Helper site.