Writing for smallholder farmers: 6 principles for low-literacy audiences
Rory Tufano is the Digital Content Management Lead in Yara Digital Ag Solutions. In his role, he leads a team of content designers who provide UX writing and strategy across our applications.
Yara Digital Ag Solutions builds digital applications that unlock agronomic knowledge for smallholder farmers. In many developing countries, agriculture is the main source of employment, livelihood and income for a large proportion of the population. Smallholder farmers comprise the majority of the agricultural sector.
Understanding our users: low-literacy farmers in Northern India
Throughout 2021, I worked on an application that aimed to help farmers in Northern India grow potatoes more successfully.
The region is the second-largest producer of potatoes globally, and many of the major potato-production states in India, such as Uttar Pradesh, are in the north of the country.
However, farmers in these states face challenges accessing useful farming information that can help improve the quantity and quality of their yields. We hypothesised that this was partly due to low-literacy levels in these states.
Validating the need: Farmers need content tailored to their literacy levels to benefit from agronomic knowledge
We engaged an India-focused user research company to validate our hypothesis — that farmers are held back by the lack of accessible information suitable to their literacy levels— and conduct research with farmers in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, who were primarily aged 25 to 60 years old.
From their research, we learned that the reading and writing abilities of these farmers — in Hindi and English — were varied. Their education levels ranged from not having completed high school to having a postgraduate degree.
With these findings, we could confirm that, despite the availability of agronomic knowledge, farmers were not able to derive value from this information as it was not tailored to their literacy levels.
I worked with the Content Design team — our global network of writers who create clear and concise copy for our digital applications — to ensure that we carefully synthesise and re-write the farming information provided by Yara’s agronomists.
The articles we edited and published had to be simple, comprehensible and actionable.
Understanding farmers’ reading habits: the shorter the better
Before the Content Design team started writing articles for our applications, I spent time understanding how our users read.
Content types such as video and audio are excellent for low-literacy audiences, but we ultimately focused on written articles to easily scale and localise our content, and keep to our budget.
From several research papers and blogs, we identified 3 reading habits of low-literacy audiences:
- Content is commonly read word-by-word;
- Content is not scanned or skim-read;
- Users stop reading once they’ve found the bare minimum of information they need.
These habits made one thing clear to us as writers: the shorter the better. However, this would be no simple task given the volume and complexity of farming information we had to convey.
Writing for farmers: balancing complexity and accessibility
After understanding our users’ habits, the Content Design team needed to determine how to balance the complexity of the farming information with how accessible it was to our users.
From readability research conducted in the US, we gauged that reading grades 5 to 7 would be the estimated education level accessible to our users — but how could we measure this?
The answer came (as so many do) from a Google search: Hemingway Editor is a tool that judges the “reading grade level” of copied text using its automated readability index. It is based on the aforementioned readability research from the US.
Our 6 guiding principles for content design
Having understood the farmers’ reading habits and determined the rough reading grade level that we would set the complexity of our articles at, we proceeded to write a few demo articles for our application.
We then tested the articles on low-literacy farmers through our user research agency in India. We received generally positive feedback for simplicity and comprehension, which validated our approach. This gave us the assurance to press ahead and scale our content production.
Before doing so, I created 6 guiding principles for the Content Design team to adhere to when writing articles. While this isn’t an exact science — there’s no right or wrong way to do this — paying attention to these principles will ensure that your content is more easily consumed by low-literacy audiences.
- Avoid text overload: Content is commonly read word-by-word, so avoid large blocks of text that may be overwhelming.
- Break up text: Content is not scanned or skim-read. Make liberal use of formatting that makes it easier for readers to find where they left off, such as lists and subheadings.
- Front-load information: Low-literacy users stop searching for the information they need once they’ve found the bare minimum, so front-load the most important information.
- Ensure content looks good: Visual cues aid understanding. Use images to highlight and support the communication of key information.
- Grade the text: Write for reading grades 5 to 7. Grade content using Hemingway Editor and amend it so that the text is comprehensible for these reading grades.
- Keep it quick & short: Our users are busy and we have a lot of information to convey, so keep articles concise. We aim for a reading time of 2 minutes. Existing research tells us that grade 5 to 7 readers read between 135 and 147 words per minute. A 300-word article would take them between 2 minutes 13 seconds, and 2 minutes 2 seconds to read respectively, so that’s about right.