Design a Public Health Website for a Limited-Literacy Audience

Not everyone who is looking to gain public health information from a website has heard of Twitter or shares information on Facebook.  There has been extensive research done on what makes an effective public health website for those users who may access the internet, but be less technologically inclined, for a variety of reasons. This will highlight some of the important considerations when designing a web site for the public health audience with limited technology knowledge.

A Better Attempt to Include “Everybody”

Although Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” would have you believe that technology is shining the light on the informational and organizational potential of technology, there remains a large portion of “everbodies” that still stand in the shadows.  These are often the people most in need of public health services: the uneducated, those without resources for technology, and the elderly.  A crucial consideration is understanding the target audience and tailoring the web design to maximize the reach to those who may find the medium more challenging.

  • Half of Americans have limited literary skills
  • 90% of Americans have limited health literary skills

Given these statistics, important design considerations include

  • Cleary written information
  • Simple, uncluttered design
  • Easy naviagtion

This has been shown to improve the usability of a site,not just for those with technology challenges, but for all users.

Limited Literacy Users Read Differently

Those who have limited literacy skills read differently than a competent reader.  Instead of skimming a site for the information they:

  • Read every word
  • Skip over entire blocks of text
  • Start clicking on links before beginning to read

To avoid the distractions that these reading patterns create:

  • Short chunks of text (3 sentences or less is optimal)
  • Bulleted lists
  • Limited results in a search feature
  • Minimize needing to scroll
  • Focus content in the middle and avoid information blocks in the margins
  • Put the most important information first
  • Use center aligned navigation tabs
  • Use “previous” and “next” buttons to simplify navigation

An Example Web Site

Below is an example of a health website for girls aged 10-16.   The notable features are the

  • Top-center navigation tabs
  • Bulleted listsB
  • Blocks with themes
  • No marginal text
  • Simple navigation buttons “Learn More”
  • Appealing visuals.


For more information on public health website design and limited literacy, or limited health literacy audiences


2 thoughts on “Design a Public Health Website for a Limited-Literacy Audience

  1. Jenna, I liked that you have addressed a different side of accessibility here. Your post is very well laid-out. The pieces of information substantiated by data bullet points made it easy to absorb. Also the inclusion of a sample website was helpful.

    Continuing down the line of making our work accessible, do you think including videos or voice recordings of important information would be more helpful or more confusing? I’m just thinking that for users with limited literacy it could be helpful to combine small pieces of text with diagrams and speech so that the information can be consumed in different ways. However, this assumes that people would be able and/or inclined to navigate to these additional features and use them. Also not everyone may have a configuration that has audio.

  2. I like how you enumerate the bullet points — it’s very easy to follow. The site you reference is indeed a good example, and the screenshot is helpful. My suggestions are mostly nitpicky: you seem to use the same type of header to make salient points as you do for breaking your post into sections, which makes it a little harder to scan.

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