Lower Literacy Users and Your Website’s Usability

Written by Hirsch Fishman

We all know that different types of people use and read websites differently. Most of the time when you think of who the target audience is, the answers are in broad demographic categories: gender, age, people who have an interest in this particular topic, etc. Add to that category higher vs. lower literacy users.

There are many people who fall into the category of lower literacy when it comes to websites. Some researchers estimate that as much as 50% of the U.S. population can be defined as having a lower literacy, while 30% of total online users can be said to have the same.

What’s discussed below is definitely something worth considering and applying to your website, especially if you think that a significant proportion of your visitors fall into the lower literacy category.

Higher literacy vs. lower literacy

The most important thing that I can emphasize up front is that when I use the term “lower literacy”, I’m not talking about people who are illiterate or unintelligent. Quite the opposite in fact.  People who have a lower literacy are able to read – they just struggle with it to some degree depending on the particular medium in question. In this case, I’m talking about lower literacy as it pertains to websites.

In general there are some common characteristics of people who have a lower literacy:

  • They have trouble scanning text
  • They need to go through content word-by-word
  • They’ll often find themselves re-reading long, unfamiliar words

People who are otherwise highly literate and intelligent might actually have a lower literacy when it comes to websites. Older people in their 50s, 60s, etc. are a perfect example of this. Anyone who has sat and watched how their parents use a website knows exactly what I’m talking about – some of those characteristics describe them perfectly.

Higher literacy is just the opposite. People who are highly literate, especially on the web, are able to look at a website quickly, scan it for what they’re looking for, and interpret what’s on the website and what the website has to offer them.

If you think this describes you perfectly, you’re not alone – there’s a significant gap in web literacy levels between older and younger generations. Younger people have been using websites for a greater percentage of their lives than older generations have, so they’re that much more familiar with them. Add in the fact that older generations tend to be more “afraid” of computers than younger generations are – such as clicking the wrong link, filling out a form, etc. – and you begin to account for that generational gap.

Lower literacy on the web

So how does lower literacy manifest itself when people use websites? Here are some common habits that lower literacy website visitors display:

  • Reading the navigation – Lower literacy visitors tend to read through all of your navigation links first, and then choose the option that best meets what they’re looking for.
  • Narrowing the field of view – Lower literacy visitors will read through content line-by-line, giving them a particular narrow focus that they might find hard to zoom out from.
  • Skipping over information – If something becomes too complicated, then lower literacy users are more likely to completely skip over it, potentially missing something important.
  • Accepting as “good enough” – Digging deeper requires a lot of reading (which can be challenging and time consuming), so lower literacy users skip, usually looking for links.
  • Avoiding search tools – Lower literacy users might have difficulty spelling the search terms, and then when they see the results, have difficulty processing out-of-context content.

How to design for lower literacy users

How can you improve your website’s usability for lower literacy users in order to make it work for a broad audience? Here are some suggestions:

  • Prioritize your content – Place the most important content at the very top of the page, where readers who might otherwise give up after a few lines will see, and keep any other important information above the fold. This especially applies to your call-to-action.
  • Avoid confusing navigation links – The links in your main navigation(s) should be written so that they’re as intuitively as possible. There’s no need to be creative and write “Who We Are” when writing “About Us” will do just as good a job instead.
  • Improve your in-content navigation – Follow some of the basic recommendations to improve your page titles and headers, and you’ll not only break up the content for higher literacy users, but keep lower literacy users from getting frustrated.
  • Avoid distractions – Design elements like Flash banners can serve a useful purpose on your homepage, but on internal pages, avoid anything that moves or might otherwise be a distraction. These really get in the way when you’re trying to concentrate, which lower literacy users need to do.
  • Use a consistent page design – Unless there’s some compelling reason otherwise, every page on your website should have the same general feel to it, and should include all of the major navigational elements. Consistency is the goal – something that lower literacy users struggle without.
  • Make effective links – There are things that both designers and writers can do to make links more effective. Follow some of these recommendations – such as using icons on particular types of links, or making the links scannable – to help lower literacy users navigate your website easier.
  • Simplify form instructions – Forms give many people trouble, so you can imagine the trepidation with which lower literacy users fill them out – especially if giving away personal information is involved. Keep your instructions clear to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Do some of these tips sound familiar? If so, it’s because many of them are also general usability guidelines that you should be following anyways when creating your website. If you’ve already tried to incorporate many of them into your website and think that it’s as user-friendly as possible, then lower literacy visitors shouldn’t have much of a problem using it.


Is lower literacy something you should be concerned with if you have a website? Or do you think it’s dependent solely on who the particular audience for that website is – no different than gender, profession, interest, etc? Share your thoughts with everyone by leaving a comment below!

About Hirsch Fishman

Hirsch Fishman is a professional web designer who has worked with synagogues and organizations in the Jewish community since 2006. Originally from Albany, NY, he has previously lived in New York City and Chicago, and currently resides in Raleigh, NC.

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