Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills
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Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills


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Having low literacy skills makes reading, understanding and using written information more difficult in any medium, but it presents a special set of challenges for finding information on the Web.

This exploratory eye tracking study looked at how adults with low literacy skills use search. Watch video clips of participants' information-seeking strategies and learn what we, as web professionals, can do to address their needs.

Published in: Design, Education, Technology
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  • Search strategies of adults with low literacy skills.
  • Nearly half of the adult population in the U.S. has low literacy skills. That doesn’t mean they can’t read. It means they don’t have adequate skills to easily read, understand and use your content.
  • Literacy skills include word recognition, sentence structure, text search, inference, application, calculations.
  • This exploratory study included 27 participants.They were successful in completing their tasks 25% of the time
  • In this clip, the participant is looking for a way to get an answer to his question without typing/using search. Looks down at the keyboard while typing, doesn’t notice type-ahead. Notices type-ahead and uses it to correct a misspelling. Notices the answer (the icon) and tries to click on it, possibly to get a text explanation rather than having to interpret an image. Continues to scan the page even though he’s found the answer (may not know that’s the answer, may need help interpreting, may want confirmation). Scans the links, not the descriptions. Takes 35-40 seconds to state the answer after he finds it.
  • In this video clip, the participant has been given the spelling, but she still misspells it. Uses type-ahead to correct her spelling manually. She has spelled it correctly, but once she notices type-ahead she doesn’t continue until she has chosen one of the options, even though it’s not any better than her original query. She reads through the link titles AND descriptions for the sponsored links, only reads link titles for the organic results. Because there’s no actual content when she gets to the destination page, she stumbles around a bit. Actually reads the answer, but continues reading. Gets distracted by the Google Ads.Goes back to paragraph with answer and plows through every word, sometimes repeatedly. She doesn’t volunteer the answer until asked. Reads the text verbatim instead of paraphrasing.
  • Behaviors and strategies include failing to complete the task/recover from errors: Satisficing, Not noticing the answer, Getting distracted, Giving up.Trouble formulating search queries: Spelling errors, FrankenURL, Not noticing type-ahead, Not noticing “did you mean …” Avoiding typing: Scanning the page for trigger words in order to avoid search, Relying on type-ahead once they notice it, Selecting type-ahead even though their search query was fine. Revisiting visited links: Clicking on the same link multiple times even though the information they sought wasn’t on the page, Believing the information must be there because the “scent of information” is so strong. Reading every word: Fixating on every word (vs. every few words), Spending so much cognitive effort on word recognition there is little left over for comprehension. Avoiding reading: Skipping to the middle of paragraphs or skipping them altogether, Returning to the search results page to navigate a site, Scanning search results pagetitles only, Not going past the first search results page. Disguising problems: Forgetting their original task, Avoiding the task, “My son usually does the searching for me”, Reading verbatim/won’t paraphrase, Relying on memory to answer.
  • You can design to accommodate people with low literacy skills.
  • In the search field you can provide type-ahead, just don’t let it disappear too soon.
  • On the search results page, focus on improving organic results and writing good page titles.
  • On the web page itself, make the page easy to read and make it look easy to read. Designing for people with low literacy skills isn’t rocket science. Or even a big secret. The things you already do to make your content usable—like following plain language and writing for the web guidelines—will do the trick. The difference is that while following these guidelines will make your content easier and more enjoyable for people with adequate literacy skills, for people with low literacy skills it can be the difference between success and failure.
  • We all know the maxim “you are not your user.” But it’s also very likely that your users are nothing like you.
  • I wrote an article on low literacy in Contents Magazine called “The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had.” Check it out for more information about designing for this audience.
  • Search Strategies of Users with Low Literacy Skills

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