Design for low literacy

When do you need to consider design for low literacy? When your materials need to communicate:

  • quickly—are people willing to read?

  • across languages—to many different people

  • to lower-literacy audiences

  • with pre-literate audiences (younger children)

Tips and resources

We love designing for and with low literacy users. We’re delighted to share a few tips with you. Here are a few places to start:

Explore examples

Explore examples of how we have approached low literacy design challenges. See below.

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Use our Checklist for Low Literacy Design to troubleshoot your materials (it’s free!).
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Examples of design for low literacy

Teach and self-assess for action—all in one

Within the Feed the Future Livelihoods Planning Process program, families were exposed to new ideas, asked to record and assess their particular situation in terms of strengths and goals and develop action plans based on this new awareness. The strength of this work is to connect new actions with desired outcomes for the family.

One of the formats we developed within a complex planning “diary” is this single self-assessment page. The format of the page primes a household for action by asking the family to mark the practices they engage in—by doing so they must “read” all the key messages and desired behaviors and immediately compare them to their own lives. This page wraps the assessment in a subtle overarching message through the layout; IF you do these practices THEN this will happen. For example, if you follow these hygiene practices, then you will be healthy.

Rethinking evaluation as an interaction

PEPFAR-funded case management programs need to monitor family progress on the benchmarks by evaluating each family, multiple times throughout the case management process. A typical method is to use a heavily structured survey. The family often experiences the assessment process as something that happens to them with no results for them. The process can be intrusive and, without a way to interact meaningfully with the results, irrelevant to the family.

We asked—How might this interaction be different for the family?

The benchmark assessment has been transformed into a participatory sorting “game” using benchmark flashcards and a single sheet for recording the results that is readable by both the program data entry folks and the family! Now everyone can actively and meaningfully make judgements about their own lives and it has greatly improved effort toward and focus on making progress toward benchmark achievement.

Planning for action

Case planning and management is largely a programmatic function. The forms, formats and structure of these activities is so often inaccessible to families, and irrelevant—except, it’s about their life and well-being. Hmmmmmm. That made us think, How might we inspire and support the family in taking action in life, toward a shared vision of thriving.

We created a household action plan that is easily used and “read” by caregivers, regardless of their formal education or level of literacy. This large page format for goal-setting and action planning not only scaffolds substantive action and behavior change, but also summarizes key program concepts. It contains just the information and action of the family, leaving program-concerns and case planning language to a separate tool not used by the family. By taking one step at a time, they can climb to higher heights!

Ungrid your grids

Grids, such as tables, charts, and spreadsheets, require a higher level of literacy and numeracy than straight text.

As with many curricula, this financial education training featured many charts and grids. For each one we considered, not only the information that needed to be conveyed, but the activity that would best create an experience of the concept, building skills and knowledge simultaneously.

Facilitate over time with fidelity

Ever get to that point in teaching content where you only lightly reference your notes? Only to find after class, when you glance through the detailed material, that you missed a key concept? Yup, us too.

Many programs rely on a train the trainer model to scale group learning interventions. Trained facilitators end up reaching a particular curriculum many times and become quite skilled. Yet, even experience facilitators need some well-placed scaffolding—especially in low literacy contexts where so much is already held in their head and not on paper. A facilitator quick guide per class/module is designed, not for teaching initial use of a curriculum, but for use later in the curriculum’s life—when it’s well-known and easy to miss something.

Are your Covid-19 materials user-friendly?

There’s nothing like a public health emergency of global proportion to remind us of how important it is to communicate well and clearly—especially to those people on the margins who experience high vulnerability.

Do your materials communicate across language? Do they speak to the right audience? Are they easy to use and understand?

Not sure? We can help! Designing for low literacy users is a passion of ours. Below you’ll find tips, resources and a free checklist to guide your design!

Download our checklist (it's free)!

Download our checklist and we’ll make sure you’re first to know as we release new resources!

Still with us? Satisfy your curiosity with further reading.

Pictures, people, and power: People-centred visual aids for development (1995), Bob Linney [book]

Simply Put: A guide for creating easy-to-understand materials, Centers for Disease Control [pdf]

Health Literacy Style Manual, Covering Kids and Families National Office [pdf]

The Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective [website]

Design Considerations for a low literacy audience a Case study [website and pdf]