Designing for Low Literacy Users: Double prospects, improve experience

If you recruit online, you’re likely aware of some tried-and-true principles of content design. Make text scannable using heads, bold text, and graphic elements.

Provide the information recruits need to understand the study, its importance, and the actions you want them to take. Add text, links, and graphic organizers outside the main column of text so people can grab contextual info and dig deeper.

It’s all about optimizing the site so someone can get in, grab the information they need, take the action you want, and get on with their day.

What you may not know is that standard web content design can alienate nearly half your potential audience: the group known as low literacy users. These people, who can read but struggle to do so, comprise around 45% of the US population, according to the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Many of them may qualify for studies you’re offering. But when you reach out to them, standard content design rules do not apply.

The good news is that the four critical strategies outlined below can help you design for low literacy users. When you do this, you nearly double the pool of potential recruits. And you improve task performance and experience for ALL literacy levels. When you optimize for low literacy, everybody wins.

Low Literacy Approaches to Content Differ

Unlike more skillful readers, low literacy readers don’t scan. They read line by line, and at a slower rate. They have a difficult time prioritizing, so they stick to what they know: the center column of text. And they often ignore text and graphic organizers in sidebars.

Forms also prove challenging for people with low literacy. They have difficulty following instructions and correcting input errors. They also struggle with searches, and have a hard time sorting through search results.

When faced with content and tasks that challenge them, low literacy users often give up. How do you prevent this? By implementing the following key strategies.

1: Put Critical Information Front and Center

For low literacy users, reading is work. So these users often look for the quickest way out. They start at the top of the main body of text. If they don’t find the info they want quickly, they skip forward or quit reading.

To respond to this, put all key information, including a brief description of the study, its importance, and the desired action, in the main body of the text, above the fold. Put all critical content in a single center column.

2: Use a 6/8 Formula for Reading Levels

When creating content for low literacy users, adopt a 6/8 strategy. Keep reading levels on landing pages at a 6th grade reading level. Interior pages can be slightly higher—about grade 8. A number of text-level analysis tools are available online. One such tool is Lexile.

Reducing reading levels can be a challenge, as technical terms often play a role in the recruitment process. Still, you should replace such terms whenever you can. And if you must use technical terms, include brief definitions whenever possible.

Another quick way to lower reading levels is to reduce the length and complexity of sentences. It’s critical, however, to minimize choppiness. A great way to test for this is to read content aloud.

3: Keep Forms and Directions Simple

In the study “Designing Web-based Forms for Users with Lower Literacy Skills,” Kathryn Summers, et. al. reported that forms prove a particular challenge for the low literacy reader. So keep as simple as possible. Don’t ask for information you don’t need. Make sure directions are crystal clear. And make it easy to correct mistakes. One way to do this is by loading only items that need correction onto a correction page.

4: Make Search Easier

Low literacy users find search challenging for two reasons. First, they have trouble with spelling search terms correctly. Second, they have difficulty choosing from among search results. Most often, they pick the first result, even if another might be more helpful. To support low literacy search, set up your search engine to allow for common misspellings. And keep search result descriptions simple and direct.

Low Literacy Design is All Upside

According to The National Institutes of Health, there’s no downside to designing your recruiting website for low literacy users. NIH has produced “Clear and Simple” guidelines for preparing content for low literacy users. They state that “Readers appreciate messages that are conveyed simply and clearly. Readers who want more detail can be directed to sources of in-depth information.”

Consumer studies also show that designing low literacy means benefits for all. One study, performed by the Nielsen Norman Group, found that a site optimized for low literacy readers enabled that group to nearly double their task performance rate, cut their total task time by more than 2/3, and improved ease-of-use as compared to a non-optimized site. Surprisingly, higher-literacy users experienced significant gains on all 3 metrics as well.

What does all this mean for study recruitment? It’s simple: designing for low literacy helps you engage with an audience you may have been missing, while improving task performance and ease-of-use for everyone.


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