Good design matters—and so does digital literacy

A recurring theme at NetHui during the "Access & Diversity" discussions was how to go about ensuring people have a basic degree of digital literacy. Digital literacy refers to people having an understanding of computers and the Internet and at least a grasp on how they function. This was my favourite discussion during NetHui because of how it evolved—there were different viewpoints, each with valid arguments, and the discussion was one which involved a very large number of attendees. I'm going to briefly touch on the different sides of the argument, and explain why I believe design is the answer to having a digitally literate population.

When the question "how do we teach people to be digitally literate?" came up, the immediate response was that we should be providing workshops to people so that they can learn the skills they need. These would likely be a group lesson at a school or university teaching a specific tool, like Excel or about Internet browsers. The people who believe workshops are a good idea feel that they provide a personal way for people of all backgrounds and ages to learn Internet and computer tools.

I completely disagree with this approach. I feel it's a waste of money and time, and would not lead to a digitally literate population. It's a short-term and wasteful way of going about it, as every time a technology is updated (almost every year nowadays) everyone would need to attend another workshop to learn the new tool.

I'm sure most of you reading this post right now have a good understanding of the Internet and computers, and you consider yourself very digitally literate. I'm also confident that the large majority of you have never taken a workshop or something similar to learn how to use these tools.

So how did you learn to use them? In my view, most people learn to use the Internet and computers because they are becoming intuitive and simple. This comes down to their design. I see two key reasons for the drastic increase in computer and Internet users over the past ten years.

Firstly, the decreasing cost of computers. Lower cost means more people will buy computers. Simple. But secondly, because the design of computers and websites and mobile phones has become so much better, more people feel that they can use these technologies - and therefore more people have bought them.

If design is one of the reasons explaining why so many people are now using the Internet and computers, I feel it is also the answer to how we may have a population in which every member is digitally literate.

Think about it. One of the key reasons for Apple's success is that they make incredibly well designed and simple products. They allowed computers and mobile phones to be used by an entirely new market that before could not understand how these technologies worked. Apps for touch-screen devices are simpler than browsing through websites on a mobile device, which is why so many people use them. Facebook is simpler than other social networks which is why it has all the users, including an entirely new generation who previously could not use social networks.

Good design enables use.

There are more benefits to good design than just allowing more people to use the technologies. For people who are already digitally literate, good design will enable them to do more with the technology in less time. It creates efficiency and happiness when using the technology. It also will lead to increased sales for the companies who are producing the technologies.

I feel incredibly strongly that the solution to digital literacy therefore lies with the producers of the technologies, not the end users. Producers need to realise how important good design is, and focus on making things as simple and intuitive as possible. This will allow a long-term solution to creating a digitally literate population, and one that doesn't waste resources or require constant teaching.

New Zealand is known for good design. Look at websites like HeyDay's Down To The Wire for a perfect example. This is somewhere where we could be known as a worldwide leader in future. Why don't we even set ourselves a challenge? Through design, let's try to become the country with the highest level of digital literacy worldwide.

Michael Moore-Jones is a 16-year-old New Zealander passionate about technology and business. He is the founder of They Don't Teach You This In School, a website that aims to help young people learn from the knowledge and experiences of the adult generation, and he blogs at Follow him on Twitter @mmoorejones.

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