Three ways to convince web content owners to adopt plain language

“Don’t dumb down my content.”

“Legal said so.”

“My manager will change it back.”

These are some of the responses I’ve heard in client meetings when we try to promote plain language writing for Web content. This type of writing conveys information easily and unambiguously by:

  • using straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures
  • organizing and presenting material clearly and logically with the most important facts at the beginning and the less important details toward the end of the content
  • avoiding jargon and idioms

So to commemorate International Plain Language Day on October 13, I offer three techniques for countering the anti-plain language arguments and making your existing or future content awesome for Web users.

  1. Share statistics on literacy – According to data from ABC Life Literacy Canada and Statistics Canada, upwards of 49% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 have literacy challenges. So some of the very people that departmental programs are trying to reach will find it difficult to, for example, determine from a package label the correct amount of medicine to give a child.There are other cognitive challenges such as attention disorder that add a degree of difficulty when trying to read complicated, dense text with compound sentence structures. These challenges can impact people with varying degrees of education and experience.In terms of Web content, this means that lower literacy users:
    1. must read word for word and often spend considerable time trying to understand multi-syllabic words
    2. focus exclusively on each word and slowly move their eyes across each line of text
    3. don’t scan text. They skip over large amounts of information, which they often do when things become too complicated.
    4. start skipping words, usually looking for the next link. In doing so, they often overlook important information.

By using plain language principles, we make Web content more comprehensible to more people, including those with literacy challenges. And who doesn’t want more people reading their content?

  1. Measure the readability of content – It is possible to get a rough idea of the reading level of content using one of many free tools available online. A common tool called Flesch-Kincaid measures the grade reading level for a piece of content. A grade level of 6 is considered the correct level to reach those with literacy challenges, but this level also makes it easy for anyone to quickly understand the purpose of the content.The Flesch-Kincaid tool is bundled within Microsoft Word. To activate this tool select File>Options>Proofing. Check the box labelled “Show readability statistics.”To test a portion of text, highlight the text. Select Review>Spelling & Grammar. When Word has finished checking the text, it will ask if you want to check the rest of the document. Click No. The readability statistics dialog box will appear and show the Flesch-Kincaid reading level.Run the readability tool against several examples of Web content. Telling a content owner that only people with three PhDs could understand their content may help convince them that plain language is worth the effort.Note that if the text contains bullets, you must add a period to the end of each bullet for the tool to properly evaluate the text.

It’s also very important to understand that any readability tool only offers an indicator of reading level. It will not tell you whether the text is easy to understand. Human intervention to fix the issues may be required.

  1. Offer to perform a before/after test – This approach requires more effort on your part but it can offer longer term dividends. After identifying some content that supports a key task for users, ask the content owner if you can test this content with a sampling of users. Invite about five people – colleagues, friends, family – to each sit with you in a separate session to perform a task with the content. Score the test on a pass/fail basis and record the time it took for each participant to complete the task. Note any verbal comments made during the test. Try not to intervene to help your participant!Now rewrite the content in plain language and run the test again with a different group of participants. If you improve task completion and/or time to complete the task, you have demonstrated the power of plain language and built an effective case study to socialize within the organization.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant at Systemscope. She is the lead content strategist for the Web Renewal Initiative.


Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


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