Domestically and globally, the number of those who speak English as a second language has been growing for decades. In the US, more than 8% of the total population, or around one in ten working-age adults, are designated as having limited English proficiency (LEP), meaning that they speak English “less than very well” (Wilson 2014, Census Bureau 2020). Internationally, non-native English speakers of all levels total over 1 billion, far outnumbering the 400 million native speakers (Breene 2019).
Clearly, non-native English speakers represent an important user segment. However, the needs of those with limited proficiency are not always properly accounted for in product or service design. For example, in 2010, the US passed the Affordable Care Act, which was successful in increasing health insurance and healthcare access across the country. Yet, even across income and education levels, English language learners were still found to be less likely to have insurance and less likely to receive regular healthcare than those with English fluency (Sifuentes et al 2020).
How language impacts usability.
For users at various stages of language learning, challenges often stem from difficulty comprehending written information. Copy is an important functional element in most interfaces, and with limited reading comprehension, important interaction controls such as CTAs, instructions, and system feedback can be easily overlooked (Aitaru 2019). If the system requires that the user enters information, their responses may be constrained.
If the system requires a verbal exchange, language barriers may cause the user to be less forthcoming, expressive, and engaged. In a service setting such as a doctor’s office, LEP individuals are likely to have a harder time describing their symptoms (Sifuentes et al 2020) and are also less likely to ask questions. They may also retain less of what they hear, missing important details.
Users who face communication barriers often develop their own strategies and workarounds for overcoming these challenges, which adds extra time and cognitive load to regular tasks. All this creates an added burden for the user, which can lead to frustration and attrition (Arora 2021). Having to use workarounds also means that the user is probably missing out on some benefits of the product/service.
If you’re looking to improve your language accessibility, here are some simple steps to take.
1. Use plain language.
In 2010, a piece of federal legislation called the Plain Writing Act was passed, requiring all government documents to be written clearly using what is referred to as “plain language.” Plain language employs concise sentence structures, accessible and literal word choice, conversational tone, and basic information design principles to ensure that it can be easily understood by a wide audience, including LEP individuals and those with cognitive disabilities (Center for Plain Language 2021).
To minimize user effort, keep the reading level of your content below an 8th-grade reading level and stick to plain language, especially for instructions and important pieces of information. If you have any doubts, use an online tool like Readable to determine your copy’s readability score.
2. Offer translation options.
At the end of the day, research shows that most users prefer to use the internet in their first language (European Commission 2011). If non-native English speakers make up a significant portion of your user base, then it’s probably best to offer them some sort of translation tool or option.
Even with the evolved translation tools available today, machine translation is still considered a poor substitute for human translation. Human translators have much more flexibility to choose words that will be culturally understood and appropriate. However, if human translation isn’t in your budget, other translation tools such as Google translate can suffice until a more thorough translation becomes possible.
Whatever approach you decide to take, remember to test your design in its different translations to make sure that the translated text still fits on buttons and in headlines, as words can be longer or shorter in different languages (Erikson 2019).
3. Support text with imagery.
When providing instructions or communicating concepts, a photo or an icon can help provide context that can be very helpful for text comprehension. While all users, regardless of language proficiency, benefit from visual aids, users from high-context cultures may be more accustomed to seeing supporting imagery than those from low-context cultures (3 high and low cultural contexts n.d.).
When using imagery, don’t forget to choose culturally appropriate symbols, colors, and even design patterns when your design will be used by individuals from different cultural backgrounds (Bogus 2020). And make sure to always pair imagery with text so that the meaning is clear.
4. Provide support.
English language learners are likely to benefit from having support at their fingertips when using a product or service. This can range from simple interaction design elements like tool tips, which can offer more context to unfamiliar words and questions (Akpem 2015), to having support chats in different languages, to having support staff trained in their native languages or trained in working with English language learners.
5. Don’t assume: conduct ongoing user research.
Finally, and probably most importantly, remember to intentionally open up a dialogue with non-native speakers and LEP individuals who use your product or service through user research.
When planning a usability study that includes LEP individuals, remember to take extra considerations around their communication barriers. For example, if no one from your research team speaks their native language, you’ll want to have interpreters on hand to help facilitate the conversation (Arora 2021). In addition, be prepared to handle engagement challenges such as lack of confidence and differences in ideation approaches.
Most importantly, don’t forget to consider the impact cultural and linguistic differences can have on participants’ preferences. Bilingual participants have been shown to behave differently when speaking different languages, showing that culture and language are often inextricably linked. Come to your sessions prepared with awareness around cultural norms, but check your assumptions at the door and be ready to listen (Ouellet, Kang, & Girouard 2021, Yokota 2019).
Mariah Ore is a Research Associate at the User Experience Center. Before joining the team, she worked as a freelance copywriter, contracting for branding and web design agencies such as Avitus Group and HalfLyte Digital. In these roles, she crafted brand messaging, planned information architecture, and created user flows and wireframes for client web projects. Mariah is also a writer and multimedia creative.
Mariah holds a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Montana and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley University.