No matter if it is a website, intranet website, pdf assembly instruction for a desk or any off-line process your users are taking part in, if you want to help fulfil your users’ needs and achieve your business goals at the same time then you have to be understood. Sounds obvious? Maybe, but according to my experience, content is the most common part of a design that is overlooked. Teams responsible for design often do not pay enough attention and resources to making their texts easy to understand. And they do not think too much about how to thoughtfully include writing in the design process.
So how can you write or rewrite content so that your readers can understand it easily? The best solution is to put it in plain language. Depending on the context you can strictly follow the guidelines of plain language or just be inspired by them to improve readability. But what is plain language?
Plain language definition
Plain language is a style of writing that people can easily understand.
Thanks to plain language your user can:
- Easily read and understand a text
- Find information that they are looking for
- Use a text to achieve their goals
Plain language is not only about using simple words and avoiding long and complicated sentences. It also includes organising content in a way that helps your user easily skim the text and find the information they need. Another feature of plain language: the user can relate the information to their particular situation.
We always use the term “plain language” in the context of a particular audience. The language that is easy to understand for marketing specialists will not necessarily be so for farmers or factory workers. Text written for plumbers may be too difficult for speech therapists.
Everyone gains from plain language
Plain language is for every reader but there are certain groups for which it is especially useful. By this I mean not only those with relatively poor reading skills due to impairment or lack of education, but also minors, second language users and deaf people (they use your language as a second language even if they live in your country).
Advantages of plain language
Plain language helps us absorb information more quickly and more efficiently. It works not only for deprived groups but for everyone. Even for the well-educated and well-read. Writing in plain language requires time but it rewards users as well as the organisation that produces content. When your users better understand your information, your organisation will answer fewer phone calls and emails with questions. Users will understand your instructions better and will follow them correctly.
Plain language can be applied in various places and channels
You can use plain language in every situation where you communicate something to your users. If you decide to apply it, try to be consistent. Use plain language not only on the website but every time you have any message for your users: in PDF documents, instructions, terms and conditions and so on.
Although it may be difficult, it is a good idea to shift the whole organisation to use plain language. It means implementing a plain language policy, adopting new procedures and preparing plain language training for various departments (customer support, legal department, Human Resources department, etc.).
In some situations, it is better not to follow rules of plain languages
Using plain language not always will be your best choice. It has plenty of advantages but has its drawbacks too. Diverging from plain language gives you more flexibility in conveying your message because you are not limited by the set of words you can use. It is easier to give your text a style that represents the identity of your brand when you do not strictly follow the rules of plain language. For example, if you add some funny wordplay to your copy, you are probably not writing in plain language any more.
Using or not using plain language is a matter of choice. You should make it with awareness to whom you speak and what goals you want to achieve. But even if you decide not to strictly follow the rules of plain language, always ask yourself if your text can be simpler and easier to understand without sacrificing your other goals.
Read also: How to write microcopy for sign up?
Plain language guidelines
Here are some useful tips that will make your content easier to scan, understand and use.
Get to know who your audience
Every piece of writing should fulfil the needs of its target audience.
Before writing ask yourself:
- who will read your text
- what they will use it for
- in what context will they make use of it
Organise your content
Build a structure of your document so that it meets readers’ needs. Think of the questions your readers may have, list them in the order they could appear and adjust the structure of your copy. Start with general information, end with details and exceptions.
Use informative headings
Headings should clearly inform what your reader can find below. It is a good idea to use headings which are:
- questions e.g. how do I apply for a passport?
- sentences that indicate what your user wants to achieve e.g. “register a child to a daycare”
Write short sections
Divide your content into smaller parts. Thanks to that your text seems easier to understand. It also helps with fast scanning the document.
Use short paragraphs with a topic sentence
One paragraph should contain only one topic. Start the paragraph with the most important sentence at the beginning. Thanks to that your reader can quickly decide if the paragraph contains information they are looking for.
Use short sentences
Try to write with short sentences; use longer ones exceptionally. Express one idea in one sentence. It is easier for a reader to process information chunked into smaller parts.
Ordered lists and bullet points are an excellent way to present your information clearly.
Ordered lists help your readers understand:
- what is more and what is less important
- what is the order in which things happen
- what are the next steps of the process
How to get help in case of emergency:
- call 112
- explain what happened
- answer the responder’s questions
- give your address
- give your first name, surname and phone number
Bullet points are useful if you want to presents items, conditions, exceptions etc.
What you should take for the trip:
- a tent
- a sleeping bag
- a change of clothes
- some food
- a water bottle
Use tables and charts to present more complex issues
Tables help your users to understand relations between issues you are writing about. Thanks to them your reader can easily pick up information they need.
Illustrations not only make your text more appealing but also help your reader flick through the document and go back to the parts that they consider important.
Highlight the most important words
Write the most important words in bold. By doing that you show what is important. It helps to flick through the text as well. But do not overuse them. The more words you write in bold, the less significance you give them.
Use simple and short words
Text written in simple words is easier to understand than text written in complicated ones.
When you write, use words that are:
- short words rather than long
- native rather than foreign origin
- specific rather than abstract
- everyday rather than sophisticated
Drop unnecessary words
Try to convey your message briefly. After writing – read it. If it is possible to drop some words without changing the meaning then do just that.
If you do not need to, then do not use complicated technical legal terms or similar that your audience may not know. If you have to use such a word, explain its meaning.
If you write for a specific, professional group, you can use technical terms. But make sure words you use are known to your readers.
Be precise and consistent
If you use a particular term in your writing, make sure that:
- this word has the same meaning across the whole document
- the meaning of a term does not differ from the common use
Explain the meaning of abbreviations
Every time you use an abbreviation for the first time, explain the meaning of it, even if you think that most people know it.
BBC -> The British Broadcasting Corporation
NHS -> National Health Service
Use active voice
A sentence in active voice is more natural than a sentence in passive voice. What is more, when you use active voice while giving some instructions it’s clear who should do what. When you do it in passive voice, it is ambiguous.
Don’t: The debit card will be delivered to you within 3 working days.
Do: We will deliver the debit card to you within 3 working days
Speak directly to the users
Use pronouns when you refer to the sender and receiver of the message. When you write about the reader, use “you”. Thanks to this your readers will easily relate the text to themselves. Additionally, your sentences will be shorter. When you write about your organisation, use “we”. It makes your organisation more friendly and approachable.
Don’t: All the facilities at our hotel can be used for free by guests with a silver card.
Do: If you have a silver card, you can use all the facilities at our hotel for free.
Avoid double negatives
Assertive sentences are easier to digest than sentences with double negatives. They are more natural. That is how we speak in our daily life. If the sentence contains two negatives, they cancel each other out. So you can rewrite it to make it positive.
Don’t: No application for a job can be processed unless consent to use personal data is included in the CV.
Do: We can only process your application if you add consent to use personal data to your CV.
Examples help to clarify complex issues. We, people, are better at specific thinking than at abstract thinking. So use examples to convey your messages.
Test your writing with users
Make a readability test with real users. Find a couple of people from your audience group and give them your text to read. Ask them to read and explain in their own words what they have read. That is how you can check if they understand it.
If you want to check a longer document, ask them to find the answer to a question. By doing this you can check not only if your text is understandable, but also if the information is easy to find.
When writing this post I based it on “Federal Plain Language Guidelines”.
At Artegence, we believe interfaces should speak to users with language they understand and easily digest. Learn more about our work for our clients