Simple words work best for all users – including those with special needs

Samantha Watson / 26 March 2019

One of the most fascinating things about my job as a content designer is that you get an insight into how people understand the words they read or hear. I’ve recently taken a deep dive into how to communicate with young people with severe impairments and disabilities. My learning curve came when I noticed how certain words can still be complex for some people, even though in my mind I think they’re simple.

I’m working on a project to improve the content on Croydon’s Local Offer website. For part of this project, I’ve spoken to a range of people including service teams, project workers and young people, with a range of specific needs. It was a true pleasure to meet them, and great to see how much their teachers enjoyed their work, which was also reflected in how engaging some of these young people were.

Unexpected challenges

I carried out these interviews alongside a user researcher and fellow content designer. From the outset we found that using words such as ‘service’ or ‘condition’ were difficult for young people with specific needs to understand. Instead, we found that using words such as ‘website’ or ‘disability’, respectively, gave better responses.

Another insight we found was how the length and structure of interviews were best kept short and flexible. My experience at St. Giles’ School was eye opening. Originally, I prepared a list of questions which, going in, I felt were well thought through. My assumptions were quickly proved wrong! As I sat in the session, and from my very first question, I quickly realised I had too many questions, many of which were not direct enough and my task-based questions needed to be even simpler. In the moment, I swiftly tweaked questions and the structure of the interview to fit a simpler model. I also found I needed to vary my approach from young person to young person as their disabilities ranged from moderate to severe.

Engaging young people with special needs

Some of the challenges I mentioned are a little sample of the things I experienced, but like I said, I found it to be eye opening. Based on that experience, I thought I’d share some tips in case you ever get the opportunity to interview young people with special needs.

You should:

  • find out as much as you can about your audience in advance, what are their special needs?
  • keep asking yourself if what you’re asking is clear enough
  • use simple words and ask yourself if they could be made simpler
  • use visuals where you can but remember this can also be a distraction, especially videos
  • keep questions specific because their attention span may be extremely short
  • have a user session that only lasts between 15 to 20 minutes, users may get tired easily, and again their attention may decline
  • make task-based questions specific
  • ensure users have the right equipment to carry out a task, such as assisted devices
  • have caution about the words you use; ask ‘What is your disability?’ instead of using the word ‘condition’
  • be flexible in the structure of your interviews – anything can happen unexpectedly
When we design content for croydon.gov.uk we try to use simple language by default as much as possible. It’s important that all our content, not just pages specifically for users with special educational needs, is understandable to as many of our residents as possible. Working with these young people was a helpful reminder of just how important it is to get that right.

Sam Watson is a Content Designer in the Croydon Digital Service in Croydon Council. You can follow her on Twitter @samxwatson.

Leave a Reply