Design web sites for 34+ million migraine sufferers

Your website design could be triggering migraine attacks.

Is this a trivial issue? Should you care?

There's heaps of information about designing accessible web sites for people with disabilities, because for government agencies in many countries, this is mandatory.

WCAG 2.0 sets guidelines that prevent web sites from starting an epilectic seizure.

But I haven't seen anything in WCAG 2.0 about migraine sufferers, so I'm speaking up on their behalf.

There are at least 34 million in the USA alone. Among adults of all ages, migraine is one of the top 20 causes of disability expressed as years of healthy life lost to disability (The World Health Report 2001, WHO)
More facts about the prevalence of migraine in the world
This is not a pity party but a fact storm

That's an awful lot of pain.

Certain types of visual stimulation often trigger migraines. These include features you might be using on your website, for example:

  • flashing lights
  • shimmer
  • strobes
  • rapid movement of light
  • stripes
  • staircase or zig-zag or geometric patterns.

Why should this be?

Here's my non-scientific answer. (I figured this out after realising that bright lights, black-and-white stripes, and crazy patchwork literally give me migraines.)

The usual sequence of events:

  1. the spooky here-comes-a-migraine feeling (lethargy, thick brain, far-away feeling, lost vocabulary)
  2. the aura, which includes a zig-zaggy staircasey flashy shimmery strobey scintillating rapidly moving geometric sort of pattern floating round the corner of your vision
  3. the headache, the vomit, the go-to-bed routine
  4. the spooky post-migraine feeling (very like No. 1)

Sometimes the brain jumps the gun. When shown anything that resembles the visual aura (e.g stripes, shimmery lights), brain thinks "OK, got the message, I know what to do next!' . . . and goes into automatic migraine. We are conditioned (like Pavlov's dogs) to have migraines.

Migraineurs struggle with computer screens

We turn down the screen brightness, we add antiglare screens, and perform 100 other anti-migraine rituals. We hit the back button at the drop of a hat. The other day I did something a little weirder: I placed my hand over half the computer screen, hiding the menu of a certain web page. It shimmered, you see. I started to get that here-comes-a-migraine feeling, and automatically protected myself.

Therefore delete the horribles. Please remove those loops of pattern and colour, and anything else that's suspect. As for the vile flashing, jiggling ads all over, they have made me and others abandon that portal forever.

If in doubt, try your website out on a migraine sufferer. You won't have any trouble finding one. We are legion.

But as for finding one willing to test your zig-zaggy staircasey flashy shimmery strobey scintillating rapidly moving geometric sort of website ... fat chance.

Note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Quality Web Content, where some of Rachel's historic articles lurk.

The gentle-on-the-eyes image "Tikouka in the mist" is (c) 2003 Miraz Jordan, writer and photographer.



Jul 06, 2013 • Posted by Alistair

When I encounter a flashing ad or similar my usual approach is to:
1. Leave.
2. (If I MUST stay) Move the window so the offending ad is off the screen.
3. (If the Ad is mid-screen) Cover the Ad with a Stick-it note.

I don’t suffer from migraines but I don’t suffer obnoxious design either.

Jul 09, 2013 • Posted by Sandra Clark

Well said, Rachel. Vile websites like those should come with a warning: migraineurs should not approach. Your comment about being conditioned to start a migraine is absolutely spot on. We don’t need more triggers lying in wait for us.
Thanks, Rachel.

Jul 12, 2013 • Posted by Lisa Edgar

I have been suffering with debilitating migraines due to patterns for years, infact I am off work waiting to hear if I approve for disability benefit. They are giving me a hard time, because it is not something very main stream. So thank you for describing the immediate reactions upon seeing busy patterned or flashing lights.

Jun 27, 2013 • Posted by Design web sites for 34+ million migraine sufferers — Contented Blog | inLine Media RSS Blog

[…] the rest here: Design web sites for 34+ million migraine sufferers — Contented Blog Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged migraine, the-migraine, the-world, web-design, web-sites, […]

Jun 28, 2013 • Posted by Pidge


Thank you for pointing this out!

It is such a relief to know that other people suffer the same problems on the Web that I do! Those flashing shimmery images were so prevalent on the web, I thought I was the only one experiencing these problems.

Thank you again for this article – I hope every Web Designer reads it :-)

Leave a comment: