Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Nielsen on low-literacy website visitors

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen's latest column concerns the issue of low-literacy website visitors - that is, people who can read, but who read more slowly and with more difficulty than the average high-literacy visitor. (Nielsen's consultancy did the research; it was sponsored by the medical company Pfizer.) The most interesting thing they found, I think, is the fact that low-literacy visitors read a website in a completely different way than high-literacy ones; they "plow" text instead of "scanning" it (that is, they're forced to read each and every word of a sentence to understand what it means, versus glancing at the sentence as a whole and gleaning its understanding). This in turn creates what Nielsen calls a "narrow field of vision," meaning that low-literacy visitors tend to not even look at the supplemental columns of text running down the sides of most blogs (links, favorites, contact info, etc). Low-literacy visitors also tend to "satisfice" a lot more than high-literacy ones; that is, they deem the first thing they find at a website "good enough" to answer their question, even when it's clear that it's not, simply because it's too much of a pain to keep reading down the page and seeking the answers they're really looking for. Not to mention, even using a search engine can sometimes be futile for the low-literacy visitor, because they don't know how to correctly spell the word for which they're trying to search.

NIelsen offers some common-sense advice for appealing to low-literacy visitors: use text in your navigation menu that's at a sixth-grade reading level, for example; never include important information at the bottom of a web page, which people are forced to scroll down to see (low-literacy visitors have massive problems, unsurprisingly, picking up where they left off when they scroll); avoid dynamic "drop-down" menus or any other "moving text;" and perhaps the one I'd most recommend as well, which is to simply get rid of a lot of that extraneous crap that runs down the edges of most blogs. (I mean, seriously, I could care less what CD a blogger is currently listening to, so why do so many of them seem compelled to tell me anyway?) The astounding thing about Nielsen's client project, though, was that instituting such low-literacy measures did not affect high-literacy visitors in a negative way at all, or make them feel like the site was "dumbing down" to them; after one rewrite of a Pfizer website, for example, the success rate for high-literacy visitors to find a specific piece of information went from 68 percent to 93 percent, and high-literacy visitors increased their satisfaction rating of the site from 3.7 (out of 5) to 4.8, a near-perfect score. (For those who are curious, the success rate for low-literacy visitors went from 46 percent to 82, and satisfaction ratings went from 3.5 to 4.4.) And this wasn't even for a site that desperately needed such changes; as the statistics above show, over two-thirds of high-literacy visitors were satisfied with the site already, even before it was rewritten.

So how big is this issue of low-literacy visitors? Well, the US Department of Education says that 48 percent of all Americans have a low literacy rate, a number similar to most other industralized nations around the world (except for Scandinavia, where rates are higher). Of course, it's been the high-literacy people who have tended to gravitate towards the web in the first place; based on other research his consultancy has done, though, Nielsen estimates that around 30 percent of all website visitors are low-literacy ones, and that that number can be expected to swell to 40 percent within the next five years. Anyway, it's a typically fascinating essay (as all of Nielsen's essays tend to be), and full of practical advice for you and me on how we can increase the comprehension rate among visitors at our blogs. I encourage you to check it out yourself.