Part II: Literacy and government websites – to the data!

In the first part of this blog post series, I discussed research showing that low literacy affects a large proportion of New Zealand’s working population. In this section, I’ll explain why that matters and what Govt.nz is doing about it.

Why this matters for government websites

The 2011 Adult Learning and Life Skill (ALL) survey breaks down its findings by industry. People in business services and the public sector have the lowest overall numbers of low literacy scores -1.3% at Level 1*. By comparison, 19% of people working in manufacturing score at Level 1.

This suggests that there may be a systematic but unnoticed bias in how the public sector designs services. What government workers and consultants find easy to understand may not be the case for other parts of society.

We know that people in the public sector are doing their best to make websites and publications simple and easy to understand for everyone but comprehension is a very real and common barrier.

* See the previous blog post for explanations of levels.

The blind side of research

You might wonder why this issue hasn’t been obvious. After all, a lot of government agencies have adopted user research practices, and test their websites and content with real users.

The explanation lies in the way that research works practically.

We have a well-stocked toolbox of methods and channels – surveys, analytics, interviews, observations, focus groups and co-design. But with time pressure, limited funds and capabilities we can’t necessarily use all those tools, every time. For researchers in the digital space, this often means using online surveys and online tracking tools. Sometimes, a limited number of in-depth user sessions, paper surveys or interviews will also happen. It’s not uncommon to simply ask a colleague or friend for feedback. Quick, easy and much less costly!

While these methods and channels are very useful and often used well, they all work on the premise that participants are able to read, understand – and to some extent write – in English – at least to a basic level.

People who are not confident reading, or not confident in the English language are, by definition, excluded from these forms of research.

For people who have basic skills in reading English, fear of embarrassment may make them less likely to volunteer to fill in a survey or attend other studies. At the same time, more verbal methods of research like telephone surveys have become far less practical as increasing numbers of New Zealanders stop having landlines. As a result, people with lower confidence in their English language skills are often invisible to research.

What are we doing about it?

I have a background in sociology, and I found this journey eye-opening. Our team has an unofficial motto: To the data! We believe that our user data can help us decide what is best for our site.

While that’s still largely true, we may need to accept that the data and insights we’ve collected have an important gap. They may tell us little to nothing about some of our country’s most vulnerable people - the ones we most want to empower.

We’ve scratched the surface and found something that matters to us. So here’s what we’re going to be working on over the next few months:

  • design and test non-text and low-text content, along with other key information on Govt.nz
  • translate some of our content into other languages
  • establish some gap research into literacy and English as a second language. For that, we will: work with literacy organisations in New Zealand to learn more about low literacy, and establish a ‘New to New Zealand’ panel, creating a consistent research and testing panel of immigrants.

In conclusion, then…

Let’s return to the beginning. The librarian at LIANZA ’14 and her comment, “You’re pushing people on the internet, and you don’t even care what happens to the ones who can’t keep up.”

I don’t think that’s quite true. We care. The reality is that there are countless passionate, motivated people in government who want to contribute to the welfare of New Zealanders. As civil servants, we want to help people use the internet to manage all the big and small interactions they might have with government.

We know how powerful the internet can be. We know how much time and trouble it can save both the public and the public sector to ‘just do it online’. But we might not always be clear on what makes things easy – especially not given the different contexts and circumstances of all the people on our islands.

We care. But do we know enough about how this push to the internet is affecting those being left behind? Enough to balance out and counteract the confusion and negative impacts it’s causing? Probably not.

So let’s get onto it: To the data!

An open invitation

Join us for a government web community session to find out more about visual design and the process we went through. In the session we’ll cover off the main features of the design, what challenges we have for low literacy, and what this means for us going forward.

Simple not simplistic…. How designing for low literacy helps everyone. Under the hood of the Govt.nz redesign.

When: — Tea and Coffee, Presentation 12pm - 1pm

Where: Poutama Ruma Room at Archives NZ, 10 Mulgrave St.

RSVP: Sarah.StJohn@dia.govt.nz

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