Dumbing-Down the Web?

Thread Title:
Lower-Literacy Users
Thread Description:

According to the eminent Mr. Nielsen, usability scores increase dramatically when a site is 'dumbed down' (my choice of words ;-) to cater to the needs of the "lower-literacy" population.

Apparently, 48% of the American public are the sort who move their lips when they read, can't find where they left off when interrupted, and must sound out the long words (don't get smug across the pond, he says that percentage is not far off Euro/UK stats!). Therefore, to maximize site usability one should, among other things...

"...use text aimed at a 6th grade reading level on the homepage, important category pages, and landing pages. On other pages, use text geared to an 8th grade reading level."

I find this terribly depressing, and am now considering rewriting my employer's site so my boyfriend's small children will understand it.


what age is sixth grade?

are we talking 11 or something?

Ya see?

It's not that im an incompetent web dev at all! I deliberately made this place a usability nightmare to keep them fookers out heh..

You did a good job, Nick :)

You did a good job, Nick :)


Why do you gotta use words with so many syl... sylla...
why do you gotta use big words?

Sixth grade is like... 12.. isn't it?

I didn't think this was anything new: don't newspapers aim to make their copy at a 6th grade level?

And we wonder why we have a literacy issue in the US...if people don't *have* read above a 6th grade level, they won't.

Around 11-12...

...and my bf's oldest child is 10, so if I wrote a site for her, it ought to be SUPER usable!

And I don't think ALL newspapers gear towards that level, but I'm certain USA Today does. (Actually, I think they might gear to 5th grade level.)

Sounds about right

I worked for BT directory enquiries in the UK a LONG time ago and it became shockingly obvious very quickly that the public in general are not that bright at all!

Send out the idiots...

Ivana and I had an inside joke for years, whenever we went out to do *anything* we were kinda convinced that someone, somewhere had it in for us. They would "send out the idiots! 'Cos Nick and Ivana are shopping..." etc..

It's true too, the world is full of morons - oh well...

click here....

never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice...


It's not the web...

It's the world. Books, newspapers, news, curriculums, etc. Makes me ill.

Sorry Johnny, for using one of those big words, here's one you already know. Don't trouble yourself to expand your vocabulary...

this is for NFFC

Monkey push big yellow button, get banana.


That's 3 syllables, RC. Are you sure it shouldn't be "push big yellow button, get treat" instead?

Push, Eat.

Take away the button, or the credit card, and the entire world starves to death. Except for those "primitives" that know, "sow, reap, eat".

Yeah, yeah, I know, "don't make me think". But shouldn't someone aspire to show them how to think? Or do we continue to "evolve" into a monosyllabic world? Natural selection is a fallacy.

How to think?

Well, then we get into the politically correct question of HOW to think? [joke]Should we continue pressing our children into the unforgiving mold of White Male Patriarchal Logic? You know that only leads to girls and brown children feeling inferior, thereby perpetuating the current warmongering Anglo-centric hegemony of modern world culture.[/joke]

Sad commentary:

When I was in high school in Las Vegas, appx. 90% of the teachers were from the area where I now live. I can remember several fairly erudite conversations I had with a couple of the OTHER 10%, but what I remember most is knowing that I was essentially brighter than the rest of them - which was and is an entirely subjective impression, but I do think I proved the hypothesis over and over again by aceing the tests they routinely produced - without having bothered to study for them; I eventually graduating with a 3.9 GPA (would have been 4.0 except for PE *sigh*)

The REALLY sad thing is that this particular "move to Vegas because the teachers make more there, but don't bother to learn to teach to begin with, and CERTAINLY do not improve yourself because the kids are all too dumb to learn anyway" attitude is still endemic here. They graduate from the local unis, get a job in Vegas, and retire 30 years later to come back here and brag about what wonderful educators they are, though I often catch them saying things that indicate they feel they "gamed the system" rather than that they taught for the love of it.

It's as contemptible now as it was when I was in school. And that's a LONG time back now. And no, I could NOT do a better job myself: I'm not particularly good at instruction, I have no patience, and I don't do kids. But then, it would never have occurred to me to take the local "easy way out"....

What a truley sad statistic, I mean stat

I know I'm a huge proponent on "don't make me think" but not to the extent that I'm creating sites for adults that look and talk like they're for 11 yr olds.

Bit of a dilemma (I mean doo doo, ok it's 2 syllables but it's the same word) there - you want your sites to sell but do you want to lower your tone to cater for people that are, well, thick?

I detect some snobbery here

Don't be too quick to assume that simplifying one's language means watering down one's ideas! And don't assume that pompous polysyllabics add merit to anyone's prose because they have any innate virtues of their own.

If you call it a manually operated horticultural excavating implement, have you really said anything more useful than calling it a spade?

MIvox's joke about the Anglo-centric hegemony is funny in some ways, but linguistically it's a bit off-target, because the plain words that pretentious people tend to sniff at are those with Anglo-Saxon roots, rather than Latin or Greek.

I once spent some cold winter nights reading a book of Winston Churchill's speeches to the British parliament during World War II. His words gave strength to an entire nation during some of its darkest hours, and decades later they still had power to move me to tears. Because I had been reading Rudolph Flesch not long before that, I got curious and typed out several passages to run them through a grammar checker. It consistently scored Churchill's prose at [surprise, surprise] a sixth or seventh grade reading level.

Required reading: "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell (Eric Blair). It's easy to find online.

Not as intended...

...I didn't intend my last comment as relevant to the original point. It was a direct response to DG's idea of "teaching people how to think," and it is indicative of exactly the sort of *real* debate going on about the merits of teaching 'classic' subjects and critical thinking skills, dialed to 11 for humorous effect.

In other news... I don't think using 'pompous polysyllabics' adds merit to anything, but there are many instances where a longer and more precise word does a far more accurate job of describing what I'm trying to say -- of course -- only if the reader understands it. And I learned years ago in school that nobody but your english teacher appreciates a kid who uses big words. So it goes.

I'll use big words anyhow, as the people who understand them are more likely to respond on a level I am interested in coversing at. One of my interests happens to be reading and enjoying the english language in general. Snobbery, perhaps... but no more so than someone who stops talking to me when they find I'm not interested in NFL football. Doesn't everyone gravitate towards people who share similar interests? ;-)

Dumb down for the dumbos, no one else.

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you sell peanuts, you'll get whom?

Median data is always problematic and really only useful for mass market products targeting average/median audiences. Fancy dumbing down your corporate site selling aviation electronics gear, legal counseling or premium market trend analyses so any sixth grader can dig it? Hardly - and why should they in the first place? Not your target group, period.

Granted that being plain spoken and easy to follow is always an asset in any given context. But "dumbing down" to comply with some merely academic user profile more often than not will simply appear downright condescending if not clueless - and how much of a "lovemark" would that make out of your product?

Doesn't this really reflect the prevailing egalitarian ideology of actually *making* everybody equal, whether in line with factual individual differences or not? Kind of like "mathematized" pc ...

sales copy

if you think of the commercial web as one huge brochure/infomercial then copy has always been pitched at the right level for the punter.

I don't think people who like Jilly Cooper are any less wonderful human beings than people who like Proust (in fact sometimes they're considerably less up their own arse) but I do tend to talk to them differently, and I think the fan sites might be a bit different.

People who like both (and there are lots of us) tend to like them at different times so if I'm doing the online equivilant of sitting on the beach reading Jilly then I don't mind being talked to as if I were 12 because mentally that's right where I am.

Although if we start seeing people moving their finger across the screen as we read then I'll start to worry.

Don't underestimate...

...your audience. I'm sure most surfers (of the web variety) know enough and are prefectly able. The median of IQ scores around the globe is still 100 you know. I'm sure that web surfing and internet buying is done by a nice cross-section of humanity.

It's just that people don't WANT to act savvy when on the web. Internet started out as a fun thing, and if you're just looking for entertainment or shopping FTM, you don't WANT to read heaps of text, hover over and click numerous buttons, remember stuff and work out site nav. Takes the fun out of surfing...

That and lots of text can confuse foreigners. Think of the first two W's in www.

There's nothing wrong with a big word IF ....

.... it is truly the most precise one available to express the meaning you intend.

However, it's often a sign of sloppy, lazy thinking if a writer uses too many big words when plain, short words could have carried the same meaning.

Do you want to express yourself? Or do you want to communicate? The two are not at all synonymous.

Always Use the Saxon

Best grammar book I ever read advised, "always use the Saxon word rather than the Romance." In general I find that to be useful advice. Also the Saxon words are easier to spell. ;)

6th Grade Level When?

Here's the problem, since the 1950's the average vocabulary among students aged 9-18 has dropped by 15,000 words. If everyone continues to accommodate people with shrinking vocabularies, the problem will keep getting worse.

What is currently considered 9th grade reading material used to be considered 5th grade reading material. Novels like Black Beauty and Old Yeller, easily consumed by 3rd grade readers 30 years ago, are now considered to be 8th and 9th grade material.

Churchill's prose doesn't score anywhere near 6th grade reading level now. Gunning Fog shows 8.8, Flesch Formula shows a 62, or Standard 8th and 9th grade level for the two, hundred word samples I chose at random. I'm sure there are some samples that will score at the 6th grade level, but Churchill is considered to be a very able wordsmith and rhetorician. Should his speeches be "dumbed down" so that the masses can understand him?

Let it roll, let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.


Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

Hmmm...I'm not really sure which terms are considered 'Saxon' and which terms are considered 'Romance'. Some are obvious, those with clear Latin prefixes and suffixes are clearly from the Romance languages, but I'm not clear on the rest. *shrug*

Dumbing Down Effect of Emails

Although the Internet acts as a gateway to a world of knowledge I do believe that general day-to-day Internet activity can have a 'dumbing down' effect. I have an English Literature degree. I have always considered myself to have a good command of the English Language and a wide vocabulary. However, I do feel my daily activity at work sometimes can have a detrimental effect on this. My daily tasks will be similar to many others here who do SEM - managing staff, doing deals, dealing with suppliers, etc. The primary medium for communication is emails. I just don't have time to compose proper emails. The sheer volume of emails necessitates the need to often communicate in a blunt, apathetic, curt manner. Many emails consist of less than 20 words. Niceties such as a formal greeting are dispensed with. In fact, many times I find myself just using the subject line to communicate with.

I feel that communicating in this manner for prolonged periods does have a 'dumbing down' effect on me. To counter this detrimental effect I make sure I always make time every day to engage in intelligent commentary and discussion. I therefore read a lot of books, non-tabloid newspapers and forums such as this one :) I need this to rejuvenate my vocabulary.

In regards to websites being deliberately 'dumbed down' for average punters. I subscribe to this theory. Why else does putting 'CLICK HERE' in BIG nasty horrible letters help improve CTR? You often have to design for the lowest-common denominator. Personally, I'm happy to do whatever it takes to encourage them to enter their credit card details! :)

access for all

I think this one of the hardest issues of site accessibility, particuarily when trying to achieve compliance with the w3c WAI guidelines. Click Here, as described by keir above may be great for those that are a little slower on the uptake, but is bad practice if you aim to be truly inclusive (you ever looked at the links list features most screen readers have? 'click here' for what?)

Getting the balance right in terms of access for ALL is extremely difficult. Many sites that claim AAA fail on the issue of cognitive disabilities.


Although if we start seeing people moving their finger across the screen as we read then I'll start to worry.

Q. How can you tell a blonde has been using your computer?
A. There's white-out all over the screen.

...and I think DG makes an excellent point in his last post. What constitutes a "6th Grade reading level" has been deteriorating steadily over the years. And as he said, to continue 'dumbing' everything down to make life easy for people is only making things worse.

It certainly makes the "teacher shortage" one keeps hearing about more understandable... Where do you find teachers who can teach at an advanced grade level, when the majority of the population reads at a less-than-high-school level?

Not quite as bad as it looks

According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Adult Literacy Survey, 48% of the U.S. population has low literacy. (Literacy levels are roughly the same in other advanced countries, though slightly higher in Scandinavia.)

For obvious reasons, Web design is concerned only with Web users, and not the population at large. Generally, people with lower-literacy tend to use the Internet less than people with higher-literacy.

Based on the available information about Internet participation at different education levels, I estimate that 30% of Web users have low literacy. Because most of the higher-literacy population is already online, however, future growth in Internet usage will mainly come from adding lower-literacy users. Thus, in five years or so, lower-literacy users will probably be 40% of Web users.


At the same time, the improvements for lower-literacy users did not come at the expense of higher-literacy users. In fact, the higher-literacy users also scored higher on all three usability metrics when using the revised site. People capable of understanding complex information nonetheless preferred more straightforward health information.

(my bold)

so 30% of online users currently have lower literacy, although this % is likely to increase.

That still leaves 70% who'd prefer not to be 'dumbed down' just yet.

But of course for many web users English is not their first language - so anyone who has a site only in English (or only in any language) but wants to attract international business might want to simplify the language anyway.

Advanced who?

With almost half the population sporting low literacy, one wonders what qualifies these countries for "advanced" status? :-)

Some interesting stats

NY times on Dec 12, 2004 - Ideas & Trends; The Last Time You Used Algebra Was....
The United States is 49th in the world in literacy.

The United States ranked 28th out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy.

Workers lack so many basic skills that American businesses spend $30 billion a year on remedial training.

NY times Dec 21, 2004 - U.S. Slips in Attracting the World's Best Students

Congress cut funds to the National Science Foundation. The agency will issue 1,000 fewer research grants this year.

Foreign applications to U.S. grad schools declined 28 percent last year. Foreign student enrollment on all levels fell for the first time in three decades, but increased greatly in Europe and China. Last year Chinese grad-school graduates in the U.S. dropped 56 percent, Indians 51 percent, South Koreans 28 percent.

Monkey push big yellow button, get banana

Its true, taped to my moniter.

There is a fine line between usability and dumbing down, I think that phrase encasulates it.

[its the relationship between yellow and banana that does it for me]

Einstein says ...

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- Albert Einstein

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.