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).