Writing For People Who Can't Read

I think we need to talk about computer literacy in the context of web design.

In a narrow sense, “literacy” just entails basic competence. You are “literate” in the usual sense if you’re able to read and write, and you’re computer literate if you have some baseline ability to use a computer to solve problems. There’s also another, deeper meaning of “literacy” that gets at something closer to “lettered” or “erudite”. The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot is written at around a 4th grade reading level, but the typical 4th grader is not going to be able to appreciate its various literary and historical references, its historical context and influences, and its overall artistic merit. And if you forced someone who read at a 1st grade level to slog through it, they’d get pretty frustrated pretty fast; you’ve got to start with something basic before you can work your way up to more complex and self-referential works.

I worked in IT doing desktop support for a few years before I moved on to web development, and I still provide direct client support in my current role. In my experience, the typical user is much less computer literate than most developers assume. We typically don’t hear their complaints because in many cases, they are so uncomfortable with using computers that they aren’t able to figure out how to send feedback or contact us. These users hate the modern trend toward more abstracted UIs (e.g. flat UI, minimalism) because these designs require a higher degree of literacy to use and understand.

Design is a language, and the way we’re using that language today is about 6 grade levels too high for many users.

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We Break the Web

Every once in a while, the Privacy Badger extension in my browser causes a website’s CSS and JavaScript to fail to load. Whenever this has happened on a web page (a content-focused site, as opposed to an app), I’m always struck by how much more usable the site is. It loads quickly, it adapts to my device perfectly, and there are no strange bugs that prevent me from getting to the content I need. From a functional (if not aesthetic) perspective, the unstyled web is a pretty great place to be.

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