Writing election information that everyone can read

There are many reasons why people don’t read well. Whether they have never learned to read well, are reading in a second (or third) language, or have disabilities like dyslexia people with low reading literacy find it hard to gather information from written text.

And there is a lot of text in elections.

That makes the work of our colleague, Dr. Kathryn Summers, important. She and her students at the University of Baltimore do research to understand the reading behaviors.

She says that the key to information voters can really use is plain language and plain interaction.

Here are some of the characteristics of how low literacy voters read.

  • They read every word.Reading is time-consuming for slow readers. And, because reading is hard for them, they lose time wading through information that might not be relevant.
  • They skip. If they get stuck understanding a sentence, they may just skip to the next paragraph.
  • They interpret words and sentences literally.Even simple words can trip them up if they don’t understand the concepts being communicated.
  • They get distracted.Everything on a page – and especially on a screen – can distract the from the most important information
  • They act on every word.Often without fully understanding the context.
  • They stop reading too soon.Everyone does this, but they are even more likely to stop as soon as they think they have the answer, even if it is incomplete.

Making information easier to read starts with plain language, but that has to go along with plain interaction–making sure the content to helps voters take action. Actions like filling in a form, or getting to the right polling place, or understanding how to participate in elections.

Dr. Summers offers these broad principles to  help you create a simple and intuitive experience for all voters.

  • Make it look easy to read. Good visual cues help readers process text more easily. Indicate the main points or sections of text, and signal transitions clearly.
  • Create a linear flow. Don’t force readers to split their attention between different parts of the page or screen. Help them focus on one thing at a time, with good navigation from one part of the task to the next.
  • Support a narrow field of view. Make sure everything they need to know is right there in the center of the page.
  • Prompt voters with actions and choices. Don’t make them guess. Tell them what they can do and be clear about how to do it.
  • Support immediate action. Keep instructions with the section of the form or the actions they need to take.
  • Provide immediate feedback. Help voters know that their actions have the result they intended. Use visual changes to the interface as well as text to provide good cues.
  • Make it easy to fix errors. When a problem occurs, help them see what went wrong, and what they can do to fix it.

This summary is from “The Impact of Literacy on Usable and Accessible Electronic Voting” by Kathryn Summers and Jonathan Langford. It was presented at Human Computer Interaction International 2015. You can download it for free at ResearchGate.

Resources for writing voter information


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