Preparing Content for Low-Literacy Audiences

March 29, 2012 | by Beth Bacon | Posted in Web Content

As I began working on a recent website redesign project, I had a challenge: how to plan content for audiences with a wide range of reading levels. And, specifically, how best to plan content for people who had trouble reading and understanding the content.

We know that it only takes seconds for typical visitors to decide whether a website will answer their questions or help them accomplish their desired tasks. They scan, click through to the information they want or need, and tend to leave quickly when the site no longer meets their needs.

But site visitors with low literacy skills have difficulty scanning for information. It is harder to read quickly, discern what is important, and make a decision where to click when one's reading, writing, and comprehension skills are not strong.

Seven years ago this month, the web usability guru Jakob Neilsen published the article, Lower-Literacy Users: Writing for a Broad Consumer Audience. He wrote that instead of scanning – as most web readers do – people with lower literacy read word for word.

The topic is still current today. In the recent article, The Audience You Didn't Know You Had, Angela Colter, a design researcher in Philadelphia, tells us that nearly half of the general public may have low literacy skills. She explains the strategies they use to read, and how content can be presented to accommodate them.

From Neilsen, Colter, and the National Cancer Institute, I gathered these recommendations for tailoring content to low-literacy users:

  • Clearly define steps to action.
  • Order topics in the way users would process the information or perform an action. Methods to order information include: sequencing steps (1, 2, 3), chronological order (by time of day), or by topical arrangement (main heading, subheadings).
  • Prioritize information. Put the most important information first. Low-literacy users are more likely to give up reading before a typical web user if they don’t find what they need or understand right away.
  • Place important content in a single main column. It is harder for a low-literacy user to scan a page to distinguish text from design elements.

I would add another recommendation: Be creative – use stories to reach a variety of reading levels. Stories can be effective in inspiring people to believe in your organization, support it, or do business with you. Stories can also be broken down into pieces; smaller pieces – such as headlines, quotes, and summaries – can help speak to portions of the audience who cannot read as well, or who are less willing to spend time reading on your site. People who can read more, and are willing to spend the time, benefit from longer narratives conveying the story.

Even though these recommendations are specific to low-literacy users, I think they are good reminders for any of us preparing web content so it is understandable for all audiences. In this day and age of 140 characters and multi-tasking, getting your site visitors to take action might require some of these same strategies – clearly defining the steps to action and prioritizing information for them.


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