CHI 2010 Julie Strothman

Julie Strothman,

User Experience Researcher and Designer,

Landmark College

Work and Interest in Readability

I work at Landmark College, an associate's degree-granting college for students with learning disabilities. I manage Landmark's Universal Design and Usability lab, where our focus has largely been universal design of learning resources in support science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). We are deeply concerned about the obstacles for struggling students to participate in STEM careers.

As part of a recent NSF-funded demonstration project, we performed usability testing of freely available math learning resources. Overwhelmingly, students had difficulty with the award-winning resources. The primary obstacles related to the readability of the resources: people struggled with dense paragraphs, math examples written within the text, assumed background knowledge, and formal math vocabulary.

The  design guidelines we established as part of the project included many in support of people who struggle with reading:

  • Provide definitions of all math terms proximal to the context of use of the term.
  • Avoid complex sentence structure, including: passive construction, split infinitives, use of multiple prepositional phrases.
  • Avoid symbolic (metaphoric) phrases and images, e.g. "We're going to do an icebreaker" "I'm raising the bar with this assignment", "This is a black-and-white issue".
  • Avoid jargon, and explain it if it must be used. Reinforcing math language is important, but is only useful if the concept is understood. Using a combination of "natural" language and math language can enhance understanding.
  • Reflect the semantic structure of the content through the use of HTML to indicate hierarchy such as headings and bulleted lists.
  • List math examples independently from text explanations. For many people, math sentences incorporated into paragraphs are difficult to evaluate. This creates extra cognitive workload, diminishing capacity for work on understanding the given math expression.
  • Assume that a reader may need to refresh their memory about basic math concepts used in solving a more complex problem. Explanatory supports should be offered proximally to the content, when possible.

I am interested in how we use the features inherent to mark-up language to scaffold reading experiences for people with learning disabilities.

Interests for the Workshop

In the Design to Read workshop, I hope that we discuss some of the following:

  • Overlap and differences in readability-related needs between people with learning disabilities (high IQs), people with low IQ, English-language learners, people with visual difficulties, etc.
  • How reader needs, readability guidelines, and writing approaches change for different types of content,such as something read on a small mobile screen, an eBook, financial planning information, etc.
  • Portable customizability: what user metadata might be leveraged through online identity

I hope to leave the workshop with ideas for further testing with people.