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Voices from the community

She stood there — arms crossed, frowning and shaking her head. I walked over to her. “Hello” I said, “What’s happening? Why the frown?”

She replied, “You’re pushing people on the internet, and you don’t even care what happens to the ones who can’t keep up.”

This was how our journey began. An upset librarian from South Auckland at LIANZA 2014.

Three of us were running an exhibit stand for at the conference. For three days, we heard similar stories from all over the country. Stories of community workers and librarians teaching people how to use a computer mouse, set up an email address, understand websites and write CVs. All of these tasks involved a lot of time and effort on government and job search websites.

Librarians tell us that people of all ages, come to them and ask, “Is this the right form?” or “Did I fill this in ok?”

I left with the impression that librarians’ jobs have changed a lot. And I left wondering what’s role — as a government website — should be.

A dreaded word

Soon after the conference, a different initiative had us speaking with iwi representatives and lawyers involved in Treaty settlement negotiations. One of them described some of her claimants’ relationship with government:

You have to keep in mind, this is foreign to them. There are people with low to no literacy or comprehension, there are people who are sick or ill, with very basic housing, no computers — but they really wanted to be involved!

As several participants brought up information literacy and digital participation as barriers — especially with government — a pattern started to emerge. They also highlighted what a massive impact these barriers have on people using public services and feeling included in New Zealand society.

Talking about low literacy makes many people uncomfortable. Labelling people ‘illiterate’ is belittling and disrespectful. Other descriptions can be problematic for a range of reasons. And the terminology describes a variety of circumstances -– including (but not limited to) being unable to read, dyslexia, low reading confidence, and having a first language which isn’t English.

Literacy Aotearoa describes literacy as:

…listening, speaking, reading, writing, numeracy and critical thinking, interwoven with the knowledge of social and cultural practices. Literacy empowers people to contribute to and improve society.

The plot thickens

Late last year, we began work on the redesign of’s website. To help us, we had three smart designers from Open Lab [see Design Overhaul]. From the start, we told them that understanding the implications of literacy and language for our website was crucial. They wove this into their research, testing their designs with a variety of users. Meg Howie, one of the designers, concluded:

Watching different people interact with the prototype, it became obvious how difficult it was for some users to find information. Things that were immediately apparent to many users were invisible to others. After seeing the difficulty people were having, we looked at research around how low-literacy users read on the web.

Their research included a Nielsen report, which showed that low literacy substantially changes how people interact with websites. The research backed up what we had seen ourselves in testing, and confirmed we needed to look deeper.

The 40%

One number jumped out: 40%.

40% of New Zealand’s working population have low literacy levels. The number comes from the international Adult Learning and Life Skill (ALL) survey, run by the Ministry of Education in 2011. People’s skill levels were measured by giving them questions to answer and problems to solve. The scale is from Level 1 to Level 5:

Level 1 — low literacy and numeracy — skills require “the ability to read simple documents, accomplish literal information-matching with no distractions, and perform simple one-step calculations.”

Level 5 — high literacy and numeracy — skills require “the capability to make high-level inferences or syntheses, use specialised knowledge, filter out multiple distractors, and to understand and use abstract mathematical ideas with justification.”

The international Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study from 2012 measures the reading literacy level of primary school students, and comes to similar conclusions.

Conclusion? Low literacy affects a large number of productive, engaged people throughout. It is NOT a niche issue.

In the second part of this blog post series, I explain why that matters and what is doing about it.

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 redesign.

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

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


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