Web Design Can’t Fix Digital Illiteracy

For some time now, I’ve argued that it should be possible to create digital interfaces that are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up and use successfully regardless of previous experience or knowledge.

As an ideal, I think this is a good one.

In practice, of course, it’s a lot more complicated.

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently that brought home to me an obvious fact about designing digital environments:

Usability isn’t just a matter of design. It’s also a matter of digital literacy. But here’s the thing—design can’t make up for a user’s lack of digital literacy.

By itself, web design is a tool insufficient for the job of teaching digital literacy. No matter how easy to use a website or interface may be, no matter how intuitively the information architecture is constructed, if a user has no experience with digital technology and doesn’t feel comfortable interacting with a digital environment, they won’t know what to do. They’re going to be lost.

A colleague recently told me about an 85 year old woman who came into the library needing help getting a printout of her Social Security benefits statement. This woman had gone to the Social Security office and was told that she had to go online to get it. This woman had never used a computer before. She didn’t even know how to use a mouse. My colleague had to walk her through every step of the process to get her benefits statement through the Social Security website.

The Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library is hard at work redesigning our site. We’ve based our new design, navigation, layout, and information architecture on the latest wisdom and UX standards. We’re making our new site as user-friendly as possible.

My colleague wants me to make sure that our new library website is usable for people like this 85 year old woman.

I can’t do that. I can’t make our site usable for someone so profoundly digitally illiterate. This isn’t a design problem—it’s a fundamental digital literacy problem. No matter how we simplify the site’s design, we can’t make up for this patron’s lack of digital skill.

Besides, this 85 year old woman is never going to use the library’s website if she’s given a choice. She made it very clear that she doesn’t want to interact with the library online. The only reason she had to go online to get her Social Security benefits statement is because that was her only option. The library isn’t going to force her to interact with us online—she’s free to continue using us in person as she always has. No matter how well we design our new website, we’re not going to convert this woman into a digital patron.

She doesn’t need a well-designed, easy-to-use website. She needs full-blown digital literacy instruction. And there are no shortcuts to that—there’s no cheat code or design trick that can make her digitally literate.

Like traditional language literacy, teaching digital literacy takes time and personal attention. That’s the only way to do it.

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