Design to read – designing for people who do not read easily

Young man having trouble studying, on white background

Young man having trouble studying, on white background

Reading is a skill many of us take for granted. We learn at school, practice as adolescents and perfect (or so we hope) the ability as adults. It is something many of us do not even consider as a conscious activity. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’re one of the lucky ones who read easily.

For lots of people, reading is a struggle. This might be because of an impairment or disability, poor access to literacy or because they are trying to read in a second language. There are people reading in difficult circumstances, such as in stressful, noisy jobs. There are people who ordinarily read perfectly well but today they’re suffering from a migraine or broke their glasses. They might be children who haven’t yet learned to read. They might be trying to understand something that is full of unfamiliar words or concepts. With such a huge diversity in the reasons why people do not read easily, is there anything we can do as designers that helps?

More alike than we think?

A couple of years ago, I was working with Whitney Quesenbery on a project for the Open University. As its name implies, the Open University is about openness. It has no entry requirements and a mission to reach out to people. It ‘promotes educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential’. We were challenged to create a site that would work equally well for a very diverse audience, and in particular for teenagers, older people, and people with poor literacy skills. For example, a large number of Open University students have dyslexia and others are studying in a second language.

We delved into the different guidelines – and found that there was more similarity than you might expect. As Whitney explains in her article More alike than we think, many of the different guidelines we found ended up with similar advice, such as:

  • Avoid long, dense blocks of text.
  • Create informative headings.
  • Provide the next link just where users need it.

What can research tell us?

This small excursion into designing for diverse audiences really caught my imagination. I started to think about the whole issue of what makes reading difficult for people, and how best to design for them, and what the many researchers working on these problems could tell us.

I found many wonderful people doing interesting work, on ageing, on writing for people with learning disabilities, on materials for people who are reading in a second language… the list seemed endless. But it gradually dawned on me that although the researchers know about their own areas, they sometimes do not get the opportunity to find out about other aspects of the problem. For one rather obvious example, someone working with seniors might have little opportunity to find out about how children read as they learn to read. Nor, indeed, is there any particular reason why they should look outside their own areas, each of which is demanding when considered all on its own.

We need to understand similarities and differences

From the point of view of a practitioner, however, we do need to understand the similarities and differences between different groups. If we follow (say) guidelines for designing for seniors, will we be trading off against excluding some other group in our possible audience? And where can we find the best practices, guidelines, and approaches that we need?

The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, now available as a candidate recommendation at version 2.0, aim to “make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech difficulties, photosensitivity and combinations of these”. What about people who don’t have any disabilities? My own conviction (and experience) is that making our designs more accessible to people with disabilities improves them for everyone, but what is the evidence to support that?

The first workshop

At HCI2008, a diverse group of researchers and practitioners got together to learn about each others’ work and compare our guidelines and approaches. There was a huge depth and range of experience there, but I think most of us had a “well, I never knew that before” moment at some point. You can get an overview from Mike Unwalla’s review. Our outcome was a framework of audiences and advice that gives us a start on some of the range of issues to be considered and what to do about them

Next step: come to the next workshop

If this topic grabs your attention, then why not come to our next workshop? This will be in Cairns, Australia, as part of the OzCHI conference. You can find more details on the  Design to Read wiki, which also includes the framework from the HCI2008 workshop.

This article first appeared in Usability News, 9 October 2008

Picture by Miguel Angel, creative commons