Writing for people who do not read easily: workshop review

The workshop 'Writing for people who do not read easily' (http://designtoread.com/2008Liverpool) took place on 2 September 2008 as part of 'HCI2008 Culture, Creativity, Interaction' (www.hci2008.org) at Liverpool John Moores University. Mike Unwalla gives his perspectives of the discussions, which were about both reading from paper and reading from a screen. This article is not a complete review of the workshop.

Why people struggle to read

People struggle to read for many reasons. For example, possibly they have physical impairments such as blindness, cognitive impairments such as dyslexia, or low literacy skills. Additionally, possibly a document is badly designed, so that even people without special problems find it difficult to read.

The content of the workshop reflected the interests of the people who participated. Nobody discussed writing for children, or writing for people who use screen readers to change electronic text into audio or Braille.

To read the position papers from participants, see the workshop web page 'Writing for people who do not read easily' (http://designtoread.com/2008Liverpool).

Physical impairments

Physical impairments such as partial blindness, glaucoma, and colour-blindness can cause problems for people when they read.

Sometimes, 'solutions' to a problem are not helpful. Consider large-print books for people who have problems with vision. One participant who has vision problems said that large-print books sometimes contains no navigation or location features, such as subheadings and bulleted lists, which can help people who have restricted vision. Text is sometimes aligned on the right side of the page (right justified), and that can make reading difficult.

Cognitive impairments

Cognitive impairments such as autism, dyslexia, and learning disabilities are other reasons that some people struggle to read.

Cognitive impairments are not always permanent, and are not always serious. For example, possibly, a person who needs to look at a user guide is angry or frustrated, and has a headache. That mental state decreases the cognitive ability of the reader.

Low literacy

Low literacy is a large problem in the UK and the US. In the US, 50% of the adults have a reading level at or below the eighth grade (13-14 years old). One participant said that more editorial focus on the content of documents would help to improve the readability of documents.


Some contexts can cause problems for readers. For example, people who do not usually have reading problems possibly do not know the technical terms in a text. Writers need to be aware of this, and design accordingly. Technical words appear not only in texts that are obviously technical, such as user manuals, they also appear in texts for a general audience. We looked at pages on a government website that explains how to register to vote, and we saw how easy it is to write confusing text!

Bad design

Bad design of a document can cause problems for everyone. Sometimes, a document is difficult to read, even if a reader has no impairments. For example, food ingredients, legal 'small print', and medicine labels sometimes have physically tiny print. Text that overlaps a graphic is a problem, specially if the contrast is low.

One exciting new development that overcomes bad design of printed documents is to use a mobile phone as a magnifying glass. The software can increase the size of text, increase the contrast, remove background graphics, and change the image to greyscale.


Typically, aging decreases capabilities that affect reading. For example, vision impairments increase in frequency. Possibly, hearing impairments mean that alternative audio presentations are difficult to use. Sometimes, older people have less experience with technical language, even with relatively common IT terms such as 'desktop', 'pointer' and 'mouse'.

What we learnt about design guidelines

One purpose of the workshop was to learn whether different design guidelines applied to different audiences. In other words, do the guidelines apply to all readers? Do the solutions for one audience cause problems for other audiences?

We found that most of the guidelines for one audience applied to all audiences. For example, many participants had guidelines such as 'use short sentences' and 'use simple words'. One practitioner discussed Easy Read, which is a method of writing to help people with learning disabilities. Most of the Easy Read guidelines for writing text are similar to the guidelines that technical communicators use when they create technical documents.

Some guidelines conflicted. For example, one of the guidelines for readers who have glaucoma is that text is in columns, like a newspaper. Columns do not work well with websites, because a reader must scroll up and down a page to read the text.

Another example of conflicting design guidelines comes from Easy Read. One guideline is to use large text (16 point). Many readers who do not have special problems will be irritated by that large size.

The consensus was that design must be inclusive. Ideally, people with impairments use the same text as people without impairments. Ideally, design is inclusive, and does not stigmatise readers. Because most of the guidelines apply to all readers, inclusive design is certainly possible. We do not say that it is always possible to create a design that meets the needs of all readers. Some readers will sometimes need specially adapted texts.

Although many guidelines are freely available, and free to use, many writers seem unaware of them, or choose to ignore them. Some guidelines are not sufficient. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org) guidelines mostly are about physical design. The guidelines are not about problems that are related to the logical structure of content.

One outcome of the workshop is a design matrix that relates the special problems of each audience to the logical and physical structure of a document. We intend to develop the matrix as a method of organizing our thoughts and resources.

For design guidelines and other resources, see the workshop wiki (http://designtoread.editme.com).

See also

The Global English Style Guide: a review

International English pages on the TechScribe website

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