Popular Government Consumer Health Website Tests Usability for Low-Literacy Users

This past week, Bixal had the opportunity to conduct usability testing on MedlinePlus.gov for our client at the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Bixal currently provides digital and social media strategy, content creation and web development support for MedlinePlus and MedlinePlus en español. In September 2015, we were selected to evaluate the usability of MedlinePlus.gov for low-literacy users.

NLM wants to ensure that its high-quality consumer health content is usable and accessible for all groups, especially targeted audiences like lower-literacy groups whose information needs often go underserved. At Bixal, this is the type of project we are most passionate about, so we were thrilled to be of service.

A usability testing session of the Medline Plus website  

Finding low literacy adults for a usability study is no easy task and confirming an adult’s literacy level is also a challenge as there are many types of literacy.  We considered finding and testing potential participants ourselves, and considered using the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine revised (REALM-R) test, but then got connected to the Washington Literacy Center (WLC) in Washington, DC. WLC is a community-based program focused on improving the basic reading skills for District of Columbia adults who have struggled with the reading process throughout their years of formal education and throughout their adult lives. Because the WLC works with individuals who have a fifth grade reading level and below, we were able to work closely with WLC's leadership to recruit participants for the study.

Over a three-day period, the Bixal team, working with Cory Lebson, a talented usability expert in the DC area, conducted 18 individual usability sessions with adults who participate in WLC's program. We conducted the sessions at the WLC at the Thurgood Marshall Center, a historic building that reopened in 2000 as a community center serving the U Street Corridor and Shaw neighborhoods.

The participants were asked to locate specific information on the Medline Plus website and were also asked questions to evaluate their comprehension of the information, including text and video content. We also collected data on their use of mobile versus desktop.

We finished the usability testing this past Thursday (just in time for the DC Blizzard) and will now begin doing the analysis and preparing recommendations for NLM. We hope to share key findings and additional learnings in a future post.

We are extremely grateful to the participants, the wonderful team at the Washington Literacy Center, and the warm and accommodating staff of the Thurgood Marshall Center. Please visit the WLC website and check out the different ways you can get involved to support this organization and those they serve.