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Neurodiversity and the software design dilemma

·5-min read

Homo sapiens is truly a diverse species. We appear distinct from each other based on our origins in various regions of the planet; we communicate using thousands of languages; we have different thought patterns based on our experiences, heritage and cultures. Our brains are all unique; we analyze issues and make decisions using all of these properties -- and many others.

These factors all directly affect how we do business and how we use tools to execute our duties. Doing business well is challenging enough for most people, but people with neurodiverse characteristics -- professionals who "think different," as the late Steve Jobs used to say -- are a unique breed whose talent is too often underappreciated or untapped inside companies, which often value standardization and prefer limited deviations from normal work patterns.

The role of neurodiversity

Neurodivergent people process information differently from the way the mainstream does. Examples of this are people on the autism spectrum, with dyslexia, or those with attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Experts believe as much as 40% of the population is neurodivergent.

Many think the percentage is even higher in the sales profession, given that good salespeople often are more persistent and think "out of the box.” It’s not unlikely that someone on any given sales team is a superstar salesperson but has neurological variants affecting how they interact with information and with others. That makes a particularly interesting argument for the wisdom of integrating neuroatypical people into sales organizations and enabling them to thrive.

For example, salespeople use customer relationship management (CRM) software systems, where all records, workflows and analytics are standardized and the user experience is constrained to the one way the system was configured.

But not everybody can use such a complicated and rigid system optimally, especially when the user interaction layer is so strictly limited. Most neurodiverse people especially have difficulty with “opinionated” applications that tend to impose a certain way of working on the user, sometimes without considering all aspects of the user’s humanness -- their unique way of processing information and navigating workflows. This is why in most sales organizations, the top-performing sales reps are often the ones who update the CRM least and why most salespeople use basic note-taking applications, tasks and spreadsheets to manage their own pipeline of deals.

Neurodiverse professionals bring different perspectives and strengths to the table and often challenge the status quo. It is this diversity of thought that gives an organization strength in special ways.

What do companies have to gain from neurodiverse talent?

JP Morgan created a neurodiversity pilot program in 2015 called Autism at Work, and the results were notable. Employees in the program were 48% faster at completing tasks and 92% more productive than their peers. Preliminary results from another pilot program at Australia’s Department of Human Services found that the organization’s neurodiverse software testing teams were 30% more productive than neurotypical teams.

Most autistic people are known to possess intense attention to detail. A 7-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, for example, has memorized the details of every shipwreck in history. This type of focus and appetite for information has remarkable potential when harnessed in the right roles. Autistic talent is often ideally suited to some of the fastest-growing segments of the knowledge economy, including data analytics, tech services and software engineering. In fact, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently revealed that he has a form of autism.

In another neurodiversity area, out-of-the-box thinkers are often dyslexic. Consider some of the dyslexic people who have changed the world: Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Bill Gates, to name a few. What they have in common is the ability to look at the world differently.

The software dilemma

More and more companies are getting the message: Neurodivergent employees should be appreciated as a huge source of talent and contributions. At the same time, increased awareness of social injustices of all kinds in the wake of the events of 2020 has spurred more organizations to recognize neurodiversity as part of their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

But to this point, the focus has largely been on how hiring, training, onboarding processes, and even office design (when we all return to offices) can be more inclusive for neurodivergent people. For example, SAP and Microsoft have expanded efforts to hire more neuroatypical employees.

Those initiatives are important, but we believe software companies need to go a step further and change their approach at the core design level.

A lot of software imposes a certain way of working on users, with little to no care about how everything feels and flows from the user’s perspective. And along the way, this rigid system ends up excluding many people who are neurodiverse. As a result, users face challenges in their day-to-day jobs because the tools they’ve been provided don't fit with how they process information and navigate their workflows, all in the name of standardization, and organizations then suffer from poor adoption of their tools and systems.

No vendor does this intentionally; it’s just that it’s difficult to do and do well. But it should become a core value for every software company to pursue empathetic software design that imagines and caters to all users, and helps everyone be equally efficient and productive. It starts with recognizing and appreciating that not all “users” are the same, which then leads to designing more flexible and approachable software that a larger percentage of people can use naturally.

If sales organizations have more than their share of neurodivergent people, imagine the effect that the wrong kind of tools can have — say, CRM software that demands a person with ADHD handle a plethora of tedious data entry tasks. Imagine all the frustration, lost potential and damaged morale because a skilled, neurodiverse salesperson simply was given the wrong tools for them to demonstrate their full potential.

The time has come for the industry as a whole to expand its thinking about software user experience and include flexibility as a key design principle.

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