Have you ever tried comprehending a dense article while reading on a crowded bus or train? Did everything sink in right away? Or did you have to go back and re-read a few sections—if not the entire article? Capturing and holding your reader's’ attention has always been a challenge, but there’s a whole population out there that you might be ignoring: Users with low literacy.
What is low literacy?
Low literacy isn’t the same as illiteracy. Individuals with low literacy tend to need more time to read and re-read information before they can comprehend it. They also have trouble with things like filling out forms, finding their way through a subway schedule, for example, and spelling. Any of these situations could be due to a disability, situational, or age-related—virtually, all of us will experience low literacy situations at some point.
Now think about this: Two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and 43% of the U.S. population has low literacy—not including situational low literacy. You don’t need to do the math to see that low literacy will impact a healthy chunk of people visiting your site or app. The Nielsen-Norman Group conducted a study comparing two websites with high and low-literacy users. The first site was the original, and for the second they revised it to accommodate users with low literacy. Users in both groups benefited from the redesigned site. This suggests writing for a low-literacy audience helps a high-literacy audience, too.
So now what? It’s no secret that clear, straightforward writing is a fundamental element of a good user experience. But users with low literacy have a unique set of challenges. Let’s take a look at some of the most common characteristics of users with low literacy. Then we’ll dig into making a great user experience for everyone.
Reading each word
Users with higher literacy tend to scan text, skimming over a page, and picking up words here and there to get the gist of the content. But low-literacy users don’t do that. They tend to read over content word for word. Large blocks of text or complicated sentences become overwhelming. As a result, these users may entirely skip over these sections, potentially missing out on valuable content.
Have you ever searched for information, and stopped once you felt like you’d found the bare minimum? That’s called satisficing, and users with low literacy use this technique a lot. Scrolling can also compound the challenge for this group.
Because they don’t scan, scrolling causes them to lose their place as they read. This makes it difficult for them to find where they’ve left off if they need to re-read a particular section or sentence. When text becomes complicated or dense, these readers skip over information. They look for the next sign of new information, typically a link or section heading, missing everything in between.
Avoiding search bars
Search functionality on a blog or site seems like a helpful addition. But if your user has trouble with spelling (or typing on a tiny screen on a bumpy bus), searching can be confusing and frustrating. Additionally, users with low literacy may have difficulty understanding the search results.
How to improve content for low literacy
1. Write in clear, conversational language that doesn’t exceed an 8th-grade reading level
While this may sound like you’re “dumbing down” for your audience, the average American reads at an 8th-grade level or lower. To give a bit of context, Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea clocks in at a 4th-grade level. Hemingway was so good at writing clear, concise prose there’s an app called the Hemingway Editor that shows you how to trim down your copy and make it easier to read. It uses an algorithm to show you where you’re making content too difficult, using too many adverbs, or a passive voice.
2. Get to the good stuff first
There’s been plenty of debate about the need to write above the fold anymore. But keeping the most important content above the fold goes a long way in helping out users with low literacy. The less you make them scroll, the more likely they are to stick around and understand what you’re offering.
3. Keep forms short and simple
Users with low literacy tend to have difficulties with forms, so they may already have some anxiety about filling them out. Use plain language, with as few fields as possible. And don’t forget in-field validation that’s clear and helpful in case they make mistakes.
4. Avoid distractions
Fancy animation, pop-ups, slide-ins; basically anything that moves is a distraction and should be avoided if possible. And if your content and lead generation strategy requires them, make sure you use them strategically.
5. Make searching intuitive
Great search functionality can be a bit of a unicorn, but this is something that all your users will appreciate. Searches should recognize common misspellings, and results should include clear simple descriptions.
Read all about it
Writing for an audience with low literacy not only makes your content more accessible to a broader audience, but it also makes it easier on your users with higher literacy. Have you ever heard anyone complain that a form was too easy to use? With that said, simplifying your content and design isn't easy.
To practice what I'm preaching here, I put this post to the Hemingway test. I'll admit, it took me a while to get it down to the 8th-grade level or below (at publication, this post rated at 7th-grade levels). While I may have resisted some of the app's recommendations, there's no doubt that the post was much easier to read after I'd made the suggested changes. Designing content for users with low literacy may sound like something that you do for a specific set of users, but in reality, it’s something you should do for all your users.
The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. -Tim Berners-Lee
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