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Digital Literacy: a hidden side of UX

What happens if your users have low digital literacy skills?

One summer I went to a popular internet/cable service provider’s store to upgrade my parent’s phones for them. This is when the Cloud started to become a common feature between digital devices. As our service attendant started to introduce us to the new smartphones, he talked about that our plan comes with the Cloud for an additional fee. Both of them couldn’t grasp this complex concept of the Cloud. Who could blame them? The closest thing to a cloud they know of is the fluffy white things floating in the sky.

When they asked the service attendant what it was, he looked so impatient with them. I had to do this small part of his job at this point. I explained that the Cloud has a similar function to a key holder, where you store your keys from going missing in the future. The only difference is that the digital files on their phones can be saved in the Cloud, not in a physical sense as the former.

I ended it with: “Same concept, just a different realm of reality.”

If their expressions were a GIF

They understood it when I broke it down to them in a way they can understand. Not only was this a red flag in customer service, but the lack of patience from young service providers to older customers who have low digital literacy skills is prevalent in a digital savvy society. Big Tech companies need to understand that their audience might have difficulty when navigating their devices or services. When it comes to older generations and for those who came from a background with no access to these devices and online services. There is a huge digital gap within the older immigrant community that gets overlooked.

“When testing an existing digital service we can often confuse users’ literacy with comprehension” — Piers Scott

Before you even ask yourself…

Why should I even design for this population of my audience? This is a sign that you should include them in your user research. Experience designers need to check on their own confirmation biases.

In 2015, 6 out of 10 American Millennials have low technology skills¹. Navigating the internet might be a challenge for your users. How can they visit your mobile website if they don’t know what Chrome or Safari is? They will abandon your product due to low confidence². Everyone else is connecting through Information Communication Technology (ICT) globally, via any communication device, such as direct messaging through social media. We live in a digital-savvy society where we have the access to them, but not everyone in the world has access or the knowledge on how to use them³.

“Many UX Designers fall victim to the impression that users are culturally homogenous.” — Keval Baxi

Digital Immigrants & Natives

Digital Immigrants are classified as people who did not grow up with any technology. They are most likely to be uncomfortable with it⁴. If you did grow up with technology, you’re confident enough to use new devices, hence the term Digital Native⁴. These two groups factor into the population of your users in which most of them are Digital Natives. We don’t see them in the personas we create in our research, it’s time to acknowledge them.

Why are they excluded?

According to John Waterworth’s study⁵, here are some factors to consider:

  1. User research recruitment briefs ask for participants to be confident and experience with the internet.
  2. People have low confidence due to their experience with technology.
  3. Eye-tracking and a mouse requirement might not be easy for seniors to control depending on their vision and physical limitations.
  4. Recruitment methods tend to exclude this group of people with limited internet access.
  5. Some people exclude themselves by not participating to avoid embarrassment in front of others.

What can UX designers do?

One of Lou Downe’s 15 Principles of Service Design, more specifically #9, states: Be usable by everyone, equally. Regardless of their circumstances, in this case, the lack of accessibility in digital resources, digital inclusion, and equity are some factors that narrow the digital gap. With additional research, it’ll change the way you design a navigation system, visual elements, and information architecture.

Older adults & Senior Citizens

Design for them accordingly. What works for younger generations may not work for senior citizens. Rashi Desai’s article explains this specific generation perfectly.

Here are a few ideas to design for them:

  1. Set your font sizes at 16 pixels minimum
  2. Make sure your product has visual and hearing aids for accessibility
  3. Provide subtitles for video and audio content

Low Digital Skills

When it comes to those with a lack of experience with technology, include them. In Waterworth’s study⁵, he has great suggestions on how to reach out to them:

  1. Pop Up Research: at locations where your audience is located at. Libraries, community centers, and educational institutions.
  2. Paired Sessions: Basically like a help center. Someone digitally skilled is with someone with a low digital skill level.
  3. Work with Your Recruiters: let them be aware of this important group in your audience no matter where on the digital inclusion scale they are at.

As Designers

We all are aware to have empathy for our audiences. We may not know their backgrounds, but we do have a common goal to make their lives easier. Why not add to that goal with this new piece of information? When we want to narrow this gap, it may be a hard task, but not impossible. Looking for solutions like building a bridge for them can prevent the gap from widening.

[1] Schaffhauser, Dian. (June 11, 2015). Report: 6 of 10 Millennials Have ‘Low’ Technology Skills.

[2] Vosloo, Steve. (Jan. 20, 2015). Five Traits of Low-literacy Technology Users — Your Weekend Long Reads.

[3] Baxi, Keval. UX And Culture: Bridging The Gap In Six Strides.

[4] Buckleitner, Warren. (2009). Unpackaging the notion of digital native vs. digital immigrant.

[5] Watersworth, John. (Aug. 20, 2014). Including users with low digital skills in user research.

Graduate Student at Columbia College Chicago | UX Designer 👩🏻‍💻 | IL📍

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