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Answering a critical question

To what extent is it possible through technology to improve accessibility and usability for those with lower literacy levels?

We have shown it is possible to design interfaces that reduce the cognitive burden on consultees, compared to traditional questionnaires. This is consistent with a commonly stated principle of human-computer interface design: making the interface consistent with the ways the user thinks about the problem.

Instead of forcing people to translate in their head from questions, to their experience, and back into written answers, let them work with a visualisation that mirrors their mental model. If a consultation is about the location of something, then a map is a natural representation of that.

Limited application

Although computer maps have been used in consultations on planning issues for over a decade, few consulting bodies have used them in small consultations, because of the cost of preparing the Geographic Information Systems (GIS). But now that lowcost GIS is easily available, from Google maps to the open source GRASS toolkit, such techniques are becoming more feasible. It only took a couple of days for Ashish Italiya to design a CommunityWalk map for this test, and populate it with data and photographs.

Some limitations remain with web maps

Nevertheless, even our map still requires some literacy.

Users need to be able to recognise place names (not too difficult) and then type in short comments (rather harder). For a less literate consultee the interface needs to provide information through more photographs (or drawings) and sound (e.g. click on a location and the site plays a recording of the information and what you have to do). To enter information, there would need to be a choice of pictures to click on, or a way of recording voice and storing it. Such approaches turn the interaction with the consultation into something like a short segment of playing a computer game.

There have been computer games (See demgames) designed to support e-democracy. The next challenge is interaction design to engage those most excluded by current consultation techniques (both traditional and electronic), but that would involve an entire research programme in itself.