Hey Aussie, can you read, do you know what you are signing up to?

Image of Computer Users
"Darling, do you know what you're signing us up to?"

Almost half Australians can’t read. This was the title of an article written by ABC news in 2008 on the status of Australians and their ability to read well.

One of the things about this article, regardless of past and current governments, education policies and programs, the fundamentals of teaching english and reading, is that many Australians still can’t read.

So if people have difficulties reading a street sign, a billboard, a flyer, or a newspaper, how do we expect people to read an online web page in a browser?

What about those little buttons called “Privacy Policy” that open up to a full 5 page spread of what they do with your privacy, does the user really understand it or will they even read it?

What about the button that says “accept” the terms and conditions.

As governments and business move to provide services on-line, there is a question that needs to be asked, “Will the users understand what they are being asked to do on-line”?

In 2006 I attended a presentation by the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), Web Accessibility and Writing for the Web: Overview for Government. One of the guest speakers at the presentation was Dee Alexander, who at the time was a researcher and lecturer from Monash University on User Centred Design and Usability on Web.

Dee’s topic was titled, “Creating Quality Content: A goal-driven approach for the Web.” The talk focused on the importance of Web Content, and how writing for the Web is different from print media, how people interact with content online and how to write content that communicates clearly, is useful, usable and accessible.

Three points stuck out that raise concerns and potential challenges down the track for any online services being provided by organisations.

1. The Literacy Level of Users (How well can someone read)

The statement was made by Dee that 46% of Australians are below the line for literacy to cope with on-line content.

The ABS has a paper released in 1997 4228/0 Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Literacy Skills  that supports this comment, more so into General Literacy levels.

How many online users fit into this group?

2. Lower Literacy Users exhibit very different reading behaviours than Higher-Literacy Users

“Lower Literacy users plough the text rather than scan it, and they miss page elements due to a narrower field of view.”

This research comes from Jakob Nielson the leading authority in Usability Design.

Nielson states in the same article…

  • Higher-literacy users scan text, lower literacy users don’t scan text
  • Lower-literacy users cant glance at lists they have to read each word carefully
  • This means that they skip over large amounts of information, obviously it becomes all too complicated for the lower-literacy users.
  • This means their visual concentration is lower

3. Scrolling can Cause Accessibility Problems

Jakob Nielson also stated in his Alertbox, March 14 2005 on Scrolling and Scrollbars:

  • People with Motor skill impairments find scrolling difficult
  • Low-literacy users can’t easily reacquire their position in the text after it moves.
  • Elderly people have trouble getting to the right spot in scrolling menus and other small scrollable items.

So what’s the big problem?

Here are the three issues:

  1. The Literacy Level of Users,
  2. Lower Literacy Users exhibit very different reading behaviours than Higher-Literacy Users,
  3. Scrolling can cause accessibility problems,

Well, if people have problems reading, then they will have difficulties using and reading online content on web sites. Putting these three items together, becomes a recipe for disaster.

Picture a possible scenarios that could occur;

  • A customer goes on-line to either join-up or change some details related to an online service
  • On the web page, it is expected that the Customer reviews the legalities if they do not comply with this point, if they do not comply it states a penalty will be imposed for their non-compliance.
  • The customer agrees by selecting the “I Accept” button, however due to the three points above does, the customer really doesn’t understand what they are accepting.
  • Later on, the customer does not comply with points stated on Web page and comes in breach of the on-line agreement.
  • After several letters of correspondence, several phone calls, a visit to the organisation, the customer attempts to clear up the matter. The Customer services officer explains why they were in breach of the agreement.
  • The customer states, “I didn’t understand what was written on the Web page, it was too hard and long for me to understand, so I just clicked the ”I Accept” Button.

Image of the Legal StuffThe question is, if they were a low-literacy user, did the customer really know what their obligations were when they signed up?

If the customer had submitted the form at a shopfront or a service centre environment, in most cases the Customer Services Officer would have spelt out clearly to the customer their obligations.

I’m not a legal person, however I wonder how the courts would respond to this situation?

I would suggest that this type of scenario be run across the legal team for advice, e.g., where does Organisation x stand if this type situation were to occur and it came to a legal challenge, and the customer didn’t know what they were signing up to?

No doubt the case can be made that the same thing could occur in a non-on-line environment with a person reading a form and filling it in at home and sending it through the mail.


I support organisational initiatives that provides customers with an environment to access services on-line, however they need to be sure that they get it right. How do they manage low-literacy users, are they considered when the screens are put together.

Usability is vital in the design and User Testing is vitally important for all on-line activities.

However the questions remains, do customers really understand all the on-line content they are reading and signing up to?


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Chris Mundy