Secondary Encoding

Primary encoding can be defined as the “astylistic” presentation of information via a medium of communication such as speech, text, and hand gestures. Secondary encoding is defined as a presentation style that applies to or accompanies primary encoding and provides additional information. Put in another way, primary encoding can be the "what" is said and secondary encoding can be "how" it is said.

Primary encoding is presented at face value and secondary encoding complements it with additional meaning. For example, you say the words, "I am very interested in this job" (primary) during an interview but you appear tired and uninterested (secondary) in what the interviewer is saying. From your body language, the interviewer will think you are not interested. The words you say may not be as important as how you say them.

Watch the following videos on the importance of body language and non-verbal communication, which contains secondary encoded information.

This ADE will provide you with an overview of a few secondary encodings and what happens when a person cannot detect it. It will focus on the use of colour, tone, and culture.

Note: Please use this alternate version of "Secondary Encoding" only in circumstances where vision cannot be used and this alternate version in circumstances where hearing cannot be used.

Note: JavaScript is needed for this ADE. See the Technical Help Page for guidance on enabling this technology.


Website and application developers often use colours to enhance the appearance of their product and to add emphasis to certain text (such as using red text to indicate danger). However, someone with colour blindness may not be able to detect the colours, and will not know that the text is important. The following activity will illustrate this.

What to do:

  1. The Colorblind Web Page Filter website provides a tool that allows you to enter a web page address and simulate what a web page looks like to someone with colour blindness. We will be using this tool for this activity.

  2. In the box "Type a URL:", enter the URL: This page consists of words written in different colours. By applying the different filters, we can see how the different colours would appear to those with colour blindness.

  3. For the "pick a color filter" drop down menu, we will start with the fourth color filter: "grayscale/achromatopsia (quick check for all forms of colorblindness)".

  4. On the resulting page, try to determine the words that are written in red. Are you able to?

  5. It is possible to change the filters directly on the resulting filtered page. On the right hand side, there is a box that contains various filter options. Under "Color Blindness", try the "Tritan" filter.

  6. On the resulting page, again, try to determine the words written in red.

  7. Let's try the "Protan" filter under "Color Blindness". This time, try to determine the words written in blue. Write down the words then compare your answer by choosing the "Normal" filter (under "Color Blindness").


The way we speak can convey information about ourselves, beyond the spoken words The tone of voice we use with the words can convey the meaning we intended as well as our emotions. Without the tone, as is often the case with text, it can be difficult to determine the meaning.

What to do:

  1. The Tones and Emotions website presents a set of audio clips of phrases spoken in different tones. Can you detect the speaker's meaning? Try it and see.

  2. The Lack of Tone website presents a set of phrases without the tones. Can you detect the writer's intended meaning?

  3. Internet users have developed ways of adding emotions and tones to the text they write. How do you personally express the following?


Our cultural background has a strong influence on how we interpret information. The tones in a language can affect how we speak and how we understand another language. Also, the phrases within one culture can be unknown to another. The following activities will illustrate this.

What to do:

  1. Some languages, such as English, do not depend on the pronunciation and tones used to define the word. The Non-Tonal Language website illustrates this.

  2. Listen to the following clip in Mandarin.
    1. How many different words do you think is being spoken?
    2. How many times do you think the "same" word was spoken?

  3. Some language, like Mandarin, depends on the pronunciation and the tones used to define the word. When a different tone is used, a different word is being said.
    The previous clip contains 11 different words (one word is repeated). It says, "The Shrewdy mother scolded the stupid horse."
    The New Concept Mandarin page will show you the different tones in the language. Can you tell the difference between the pronunciations? Listen to the Mandarin clip again and see if you can tell the differences in the words.

What to hand in:

From the Colour activity:

  1. Was your list of blue words correct? If your list was incorrect, what do you think is the cause of the error?
  2. As a developer, how would you prevent the problems that you experienced in this activity from occurring?

From the Tone activity:

  1. What techniques do you use to indicate your emotions/meanings when you are chatting with friends online?
  2. Do your friends express it the same way as you? If not, how does it differ?
  3. What are some problems with using emoticons and acronyms?

From the Culture activity:

  1. Since certain English words may be pronounced using different tones, which may confuse some listeners, how would you present information such that it would not confuse your audience?


  1. What did you learn from this ADE?
  2. What will you do differently now that you have learned it?
  3. Should secondary encoding be used on Web content? If so, how should it be used? If not, why not?
  4. Besides those presented in this ADE, what are some other solutions that can help resolve the problems with secondary encoding?


  1. What were your expectations of this ADE?
  2. Did this ADE meet your expectations? Provide a rating between 1 and 7, where 1 means not at all, 4 means somewhat, and 7 means absolutely. Please explain your choice.
  3. Did you feel that the video(s) for this ADE was appropriate? Why or why not? Provide a rating between 1 and 7, where 1 means not at all, 4 means somewhat, and 7 means absolutely. Please explain your choice.
  4. Do you have any suggestions for other possible videos?
  5. Did you feel that the questions above got you to think about the real and serious issues regarding this ADE? Provide a rating between 1 and 7, where 1 means not at all, 4 means somewhat, and 7 means absolutely. Please explain your choice.
  6. If you have any suggestions on how to improve this ADE, please include it here.

Additional Information and Tools:

  1. The Lighthouse International website provides some guidelines on how to choose effective colour contrasts.
  2. Vischeck has an online tool to check images for the 3 main conditions.
  3. Visolve is an assistive technology that converts the colours on the screen into ones the viewer can see.
  4. Wikipedia provides a good summarization of emoticons, where they came from, and what they mean.
  5. Wikipedia provides a list of Internet slang that uses abbreviations and tags.