IA Summit: Search Strategies of Users With Low Literacy Skills | Angela Colter

I’m here EARLY Sunday morning for a session with Angela Colter of Electronic Ink. I saw Angela present last summer at Confab on measuring content and it was fabulous. And this topic really applies to my work so I’m really excited this morning. More on users with low-literacy skills in her article in Contents Magazine. 

Two things she wants us to know:

In the US, nearly half the population has low literacy skills. People push back when Colter says this — but she’s not saying they can’t read. But, their literacy skills are deficient to the point where they cannot easily understand and apply printed material.

Literacy includes skills like

  • Word recognition
  • Understanding sentence structure
  • Text search
  • Inference
  • Application
  • Calculations

Canada, UK and Australia have similar levels — in the upper 40s. Switzerland is lucky — only 25%. Portugal is 80%.

Good news: As designers, we can accommodate this population.

There’s a decent body of knowledge about people’s reading printed and online material. Kathryn Summers has done research on how to design online for people with low literacy.

Hasn’t been a lot of research on how they use search.

Colter did exploratory study with 27 people who read at or below 8th grade with three tasks:

  1. Watched them search
  2. “Will it rain tomorrow? Use Google to find out.”
  3. Pretend your doctor prescribed a new drug for diabetes…find out about this drug.

We get to watch an eye tracking study of a man trying to find out whether it will rain tomorrow. First thing he does is scan the entire Google home page. He wants to figure out the answer without having to come up with a keyword. Low-literacy users prefer to browse. When he did type a keyword, he looks at his keyboard, so he doesn’t notice the type-ahead suggestions on the screen.

He gets a search that tells the answer in an icon, but he’s not sure it’s the right answer, so he wants to click on the icon to go to the next page to confirm — but the icon’s not clickable.

Question from audience: Is his desire to confirm partly test effect? Colter says, yes, she’ll talk more about the challenges of moderation at the end, but seeking confirmation of first guess is still common behavior among this population.

This population completed their tasks successfully about 25% of the time.

Now we’re watching a woman looking for information on a drug.

She’s on a results page — she scans all page titles but reads descriptions on sponsored links only. On this page, they are the only ones with sentences and therefore are easiest to understand. They’re also at the top, of course.

Got to a page that had the information, but the first text on the page is the section of Google ad links. She cannot get the scent of information…we see her scanning the non-content-rich parts of the page for a painfully long period of time before she scrolls, and then finally she finds the information. From the eye-tracking, she reads it repeatedly, word for word — sometimes looking away and coming back. She has to be prompted to give the answer — she is not confident in her search either. She can share the information, but she does not paraphrase when explaining — she reads/says the sentence exactly.

Behaviors and Strategies of Low-Literacy Population

  • Failing to complete task/recover from errors
  • Formulating poor search queries
  • Avoiding typing
  • Revisiting visited links
  • Reading every word
  • Avoiding reading
  • Disguising problems

Moderating issues: People would forget the task, they would make up a new task that they could successfully complete, avoiding issues [my son does that for me, I left my glasses at home]. Think-aloud protocols are a cognitive burden for this population, so they can’t talk through what they’re doing while they’re doing it.

Suggestions to Help:

Many of the strategies to make your web page better for a low-literacy population are also the strategies you use to make your web page better for people.

  • Provide type ahead but let it stay
  • Make it easy to read
  • Make it look easy to read
  • Reduce distractions — make it easy to figure out where they information is
  • Address likely questions
  • Summarize, then elaborate
  • One point per page
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