Customers: Where Usability and Plain Language Intersect


Last month, noted government usability expert Jonathan Rubin spoke to the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) at its February meeting on how plain language and usability intersect. He graciously allowed me to write up some of his points for this blog, because they’re worth publicizing.

He emphasized what I consider the most important plain language technique: audience-focused organization. Because you can use all of the techniques in the list, but if you miss organizing for your reader, your content is not going to be plain.

Jon added the logical step: test the content.

Goals of Usability Testing

  • Get data on content, navigation, comprehension
  • Improve design
  • Validate concerns
  • Improve user experience
  • Save $$ (development costs, help desk, fixes)
  • Increase success rate of top tasks

Testing Results

When Jon was at GSA, I participated in his First Fridays program, where his team tested other federal websites.

We discovered that no matter the agency or the pages chosen, we always had three things listed in our “Top 10 Problem” report:

  1. Too much text
  2. Too much jargon
  3. Too many acronyms

This was true for every agency, for every program, for every audience.

Whitney Quesenbery’s 5 Es of Usability

  • Effective: Are goals completed?
  • Efficient: Is it fast?
  • Engaging: Is it pleasant and satisfying to use?
  • Error Tolerant: Does it prevent errors before they occur, and help recover from ones that do?
  • Easy to Learn: Easy to use on first and future visits?

The only way to test if content is usable or plain is to test it. It’s not the writer or editor–or the program manager–who determines whether content is plain or usable; it’s the user.

Other Benefits to Testing

  • Reduced developer time
  • Reduced risk/chance of failure
  • Reduced maintenance
  • Reduced training time
  • Reduced help desk calls / emails
  • High task completion rate
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • PR boost

So if you’re having difficulty convincing a manager to allot the extra time to test, bring up these benefits. Who doesn’t want these things?

Success Stories

If you’re not convinced by best practices, then be convinced by the results. When federal government web managers test, they balance user needs and business goals, and everyone wins.

As a result of putting customers first, federal websites saw these results:

  • customers completed tasks 50% faster
  • customers showed 70% bump in user satisfaction
  • prioritizing top tasks led to a $2 million a year savings
  • help desk calls decreased by 10%
  • mobile site average visits up 50%, some 1000%

When you’re writing and editing, it’s hard to remember you are not your user. It’s really hard, particularly if you’ve worked for the same agency for some time. You fall into habits and patterns, and the agency’s idiosyncratic ways. Usability testing allows you to use your customers’ eyes.

Katherine Spivey is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Sonia Chakrabarty

Thanks for sharing this post! I was wondering if you had examples or models of agencies that excelled at putting users first.