How You Might Be Excluding Up to Half Your Users
A surprising number of people are low-literacy. What that means and how you can design for it.
It’s very important to consider your content from your user’s perspective. Is it written so that your target audience will understand and relate to it?
— Kristina Halvorson
In her book Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson reminds us to always consider our target audience when writing content. Who that audience is will, of course, depend on your particular website or product and its goals. But if your target audience includes the general public, you may want to consider that nearly half of them may have low literacy skills.
That’s right: Half.
Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. It’s a shocking number. If you’re still unconvinced, just check out the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), which found that 21–23% of U.S. adults had “highly deficient” literacy skills, while another 25–28% had “very limited” literacy skills. Both groups are defined as having “low literacy.” The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development found similar levels of low literacy in North America, Australia, and most of Europe.
What is low literacy?
The National Literacy Act of 1991 defines literacy as “the ability to read, write and speak English; compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society; to achieve one’s goals; and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” The basic skills needed for literacy include things like recognizing words fluently, understanding the structure of sentences and how they relate to each other, drawing appropriate inferences, applying information, and solving quantitative problems.
A person with low literacy skills will have a harder time doing things like filling out a job application, interpreting a bus schedule, or understanding when or how to take medications.
Despite how characteristics of low literacy may manifest themselves, they do not indicate a lack of intelligence; they indicate a lack of skills.