I work as a content designer on the Digital Marketplace and for over a year now, I’ve also been working as a volunteer in adult literacy classes. I’ve been using my experiences in the classroom to help me write simpler, more accessible content.
Users with low literacy
Most of the students I work with fell out of a formal education system early. They face different challenges including dyslexia, poor vision and previously undiagnosed learning difficulties. Some of them have simply never found a learning environment that met their needs before.
The impact of not being able to read and write well means they can struggle to find work, organise accommodation, and get social support when they need it. They’re some of the people who depend on government services the most so understanding their needs is really important.
It can be hard to find the right service
It’s worth remembering the hoops people often have to jump through before they even come to use a service. It took me a long time to find a literacy lesson I could work in. I searched the internet, phoned local volunteering centres, looked at teaching courses, and eventually found a local college where I could help. I have a high level of literacy but people with lower literacy levels would have to be very motivated to find the same course.
Content designers need to remember that sometimes users have to do a lot of stressful work before they even reach their service. It’s our job to make sure that finding the service is as easy as possible. That means using words and phrases that users are likely to search for.
Confidence is fragile
It takes a lot to come to adult literacy lessons and ask for help so building up confidence is important. Asking a student to read content that’s written in long, complicated sentences can shake their confidence and make them quickly give up on a task. Users of government services are no different. Keeping content short, clear, and simple can help them use a service without getting discouraged.
Less is more
Sometimes content writers are asked to include as much detail as possible to make sure every angle has been covered. This can be a disaster for users with low literacy who can struggle to:
- identify the main points in large blocks of text
- concentrate on reading for long periods of time
- retain the information they’re reading as they read it
You can help people of all literacy levels understand what they need to know by:
- only including content that meets a specific user need
- organising information into manageable chunks
- using bullet points to break up long lists
Punctuation can slow people down
When people have to use a government service online, it’s unlikely to be the focal point of their day. Content designers must write for quick and easy reading.
We have to remember that it can be hard to read things like:
- capital letters
- contractions, eg ‘would’ve’
Readers with low literacy often don’t recognise the meaning of certain types of punctuation at a glance, eg an apostrophe showing possession. Even readers with higher literacy levels can find that reading words all in capitals slows them down. Using common words and simple sentence structures can have a big impact on reading speed.
When people are concentrating on reading and understanding each word, there’s no room for subtle implications. If someone has to do something to use a service, you can’t hint at it, you have to tell them quickly and clearly. Using phrases like ‘you must’ can help users understand when there’s a step they have to follow.
Accessible and inclusive content
At GDS, we always try to design for the least experienced user so no one is excluded from understanding and using a service. We also try to apply the same principle to users with low literacy. By writing for all literacy levels, it means more people can use the government services they depend on.
Low literacy isn’t something that only affects a few people. Around 10% of the UK population has some degree of dyslexia according to the British Dyslexia Association. This means it’s likely that all government services have a number of dyslexic users. If a service wasn’t written with them in mind, it’s probably not meeting user needs. That’s why writing accessible, inclusive copy shouldn’t be an optional approach to writing content. It should be best practice.