user experience

Designing for illiteracy – a mass market accessibility challenge

I was in Chicago the other week and out with a friend who has multiple, severe dietary allergies. She can’t eat dairy, eggs, wheat, and a bunch of other stuff. Eating out is a bit of a pain for her but, if she doesn’t get it right, a whole lot more pain later.

We were in one of those posh grocery stores with its own little cafe and, after much deliberation, decided what to eat. The girl who was taking our order had a desk that was positioned in a way that made it easy for me to look over her shoulder at the interface she was using to take the order.

Taking a standard order was pretty easy – you just pressed the button that said ‘thai chicken salad’. Simple.

Then it came time to take my friend’s order. First she had to press the button that said ‘thai chicken salad’ and then my friend asked that she make a special note for the chef about her allergies. To do this, the girl had to press the notes button and then type the special request in. No assistance from the UI whatsoever. And that’s when the trouble struck. Spelling.

Without wanting to ridicule her – she failed to spell ‘dairy’ even to the point that you might guess what she intended. There was no way she was ever going to accurately convey my friends requirements to the chef. I watched, quietly, as she tried and failed to type the instructions and eventually sent the following note through to the chef:


Here’s the thing. Our order taker is far from an edge case. Jonathan Kozol has written extensively about illiteracy in the US (and there are similar problems in many parts of the world). He says:

Twenty-five million American adults cannot read the poison warnings on a can of pesticide, a letter from their child’s teacher, or the front page of a daily paper. An additional 35 million read only at a level which is less than equal to the full survival needs of our society.

Together, these 60 million people represent more than one third of the entire adult population.

The largest numbers of illiterate adults are white, native-born Americans. In proportion to population, however, the figures are higher for blacks and Hispanics than for whites. Sixteen percent of white adults, 44 percent of blacks, and 56 percent of Hispanic citizens are functional or marginal illiterates. Figures for the younger generation of black adults are increasing. Forty-seven percent of all black seventeen-year olds are functionally illiterate. That figure is expected to climb to 50 percent by 1990.

Fifteen percent of recent graduates of urban high schools read at less than sixth grade level. One million teenage children between t velve and seventeen percent cannot read above the third grade level. Eighty-five percent of juveniles who come before the courts are functionally illiterate. Half the heads of households classified below the poverty line by federal standards cannot read an eighth grade book. Over one third of mothers who receive support from welfare are functionally illiterate. Of 8 million unemployed adults, 4 to 6 million lack the skills to be retrained for hi-tech jobs. (more here)

This is a big problem. This is not an edge case. And, before you say it, the answer is not icons. (The number of times people have told me that the solution to designing for an illiterate audience is icons. Now make me an icon for ‘vegan’).

I don’t have the solution, but I do have a couple of guiding thoughts.

  • People are better at recognising words than they are at making them from scratch. My 3yr old can recognise words in books that he is familiar with but he can’t read (no matter what he tells you). This is true for all of us. Recognition is far easier than recall. Think about foreign languages – most of us can read a lot more than we can speak, right?
  • Think about mission critical tasks. Things that, if not done right, could hurt people or have significant negative impact on people or business. Don’t give people a blank box to fill in when you’re designing these tasks. Give options (in words, not icons). Let people recognise and select, don’t make them remember how to spell stuff.

Jan Chipchase has done a lot of design research work with Nokia in the area of device design for illiterate end users and supports the view that making the interface easy to ‘learn’ (which largely means ‘remember’ for people who are less literate), is the best approach – better than icons or audio menus or all other apparently obvious solutions.

This presentation is worth a flip through if you’re interested in his experience and outcomes.


None of this is new, granted. But it’s not something I hear us talking about anywhere near enough. Watching that poor girl struggle with that interface and because of the poor design put my friend’s health at risk was a real wake up call and reminder to me of how wide-spread and significant this issue is.

I’m resolving to be more aware of this in the future and I hope you will to.

(And, if you’re in the UK, consider signing the Save Bookstart petition – this invaluable service puts books into the hands of young children – having books in the house in childhood is a key indicator of later literacy).

10 thoughts on “Designing for illiteracy – a mass market accessibility challenge

  1. This is an excellent point that I think we, the well-educated elite who create information technology, understand very poorly to the extent we understand it at all.

    At FreeGeek Chicago, where I volunteer, between non-English speakers and people with poor educational histories (typically because of poverty), I’d estimate that well over half of our volunteers are barely literate in English, and some significant percentage is functionally illiterate.

    (I’ve actually caught flak at some events for saying this in public, but it’s not a personal judgement on the volunteers. I like them helluva lot better than nonprofit industrial complex and foundation people aghast you would admit in public that the American public school system is failing. But that still doesn’t mean they have solid reading and writing skills.)

    Chipchase’s ideas are right on — icons won’t solve this. It is a hard, deep, painfully systemic problem which is hard to fix, much less even make progress on, within the context of information tech.

    A critical question for me how to create workflows for people that respect their literacy levels and think about how to situate technologies in real world processes. Again, the geek mentality can really get in the way. These questions weigh on me as I build a volunteer management and tracking system for our organization — several of the techie folks want kiosks where you can drag your avatar in and out of some sign-in screen to track hours, but I think given our audience’s literacy levels and comfort with technology, paper sign-in is a lot safer, more comfortable, more accurate, provides a paper trail, isn’t embarrassing (most people can write their name and the current time, in a variety of languages even!) and gives someone who does have basic reading, writing, and typing skills (like a digitally savvy teenage mom) some data entry practice.

  2. P.S. This touches mass-market products which need to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible to sell as many units as possible. But your example was of enterprise software that wasn’t designed with its users in mind and had real health and safety implications. I think there’s a lot of examples like this, and the implications are scarier than your friend who doesn’t know how to use their cell phone.

  3. David,
    You cannot lay the complete blame on the education system. The socio-economic system is at fault. Many children cannot learn in school because of the distress they suffer due to poverty, hunger, discrimination, family alcoholism, untreated medical conditions and other issues.

    The point is correct that anything written for “the public” must take into account the challenges experienced by those with low literacy and other disabilities.

    1. Cheryl — absolutely. I was mainly trying to avoid a longer, off-topic rant about the systemic causes of illiteracy by mentioning one of the more prominent causes as shorthand for the whole complex of issues.

  4. Does this challenge raise any ethical issues?

    If illiteracy is a solvable problem for all adults who fall within a very wide range of “normal development,” could there be issues around working on a government project to develop a site, application or tool for adult citizens and conducting usability testing with illiterate adults?

    What’s the balance between meeting the needs of users and reproducing or enabling a context where illiteracy gets transformed from a social and educational problem into a design problem?

    1. Benjamin: I don’t entirely understand. Would the ethical issues with conducting usability testing with illiterate adults stem from replacing a social and educational problem with a design problem? And that by identifying it as a design problem, you sidestep the systemic issues?

      Even if it is a solvable problem, is it that huge of a problem that some people are poor at reading and writing? I love reading and love/hate writing, and it’s kind of hard to imagine how I’d look at the world if I couldn’t do those things as well as I do now. At the same time, most of our “barely-literate-by-educated-middle-class-standards” volunteers are successful in their work and lives. There’s even a guy (native english speaker) who is quickly picking up PHP and Drupal whose reading seems solid, but whose writing is pretty much at a 5th or 6th grade level. It seems like a tricky, context-bound ethical question, if nothing else.

      A few years ago a friend and I went to a middle school graduation on the south side where the Governor of Illinois told a bunch of kids whose primary economic options in the years ahead are the lowest rung in the service industry or the drug trade that “readers are leaders.” It was just pathetic.

  5. Loved the personal story, and how you’ve picked up on this crucial design issue.

    I’m part of the ‘Design to read’ project, which aims to bring together researchers and practitioners who are interested in any aspect of the problem of designing for people who do not read easily.

    It turns out that you can make almost anyone into a poor reader by combining some or all of these factors:
    – stressful conditions
    – unfamiliar vocabulary
    – small screens
    – low light / poor contrast / unfamiliar fonts
    – eyesight problems
    and so on.

    It’s also fascinating that the things we have to do to design for poor readers tend to help everyone, not just people with reading difficulties. Examples:
    – simple language
    – uncluttered layouts
    – clear, familiar fonts with good contrast between text and ground
    and so on.

    I’ve added this article to the ‘Stories’ section of the Design to Read web site.

    Thanks very much.

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