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Government Websites Yak, Yak, Yak

I just finished judging the web entries for the 2011 Clearmark Plain Language Awards. Much better entries this year. Some real models for government agencies to use as they implement the Plain Writing Act.

One of the benefits of the Clearmark Awards – in addition to the chance for some great recognition – is that every applicant gets critical feedback from the judges. My fellow judges and I spent a lot of time on those score sheets, pointing out both what works well and what needs to be improved. You know the one comment I made on almost every single entry? TOO MANY WORDS!

Yak, yak, yak. Government agencies just don’t seem to know when to stop, when it comes to websites. One of the most common problems is writing a website like you’re writing a print publication. Don’t do that, darn it. After all this time, you know better. Another common problem is redundancy. Say it once – we’ll get it. Use formatting tricks to help your readers. You write paragraphs when a simple bulleted list would make scanning and absorbing so much easier.

Web readers are impatient. They come to your website to do something – to complete a task. They might be using a cell phone to complete that task. They don’t want to wade around in the yakety yak muck to find what they want. They want to find it, use it, and move on with their busy lives, as fast as possible.

So let me give you an example (sorry to pick on you, Education…I could have found an example on just about any government website). Take a look at this paragraph on the Federal Student Aid website:

“We can help make your education affordable! The Department’s Federal student aid programs are the largest source of student aid in America. If you’re interested in financial aid for college or a career school, you’ve come to the right place. These programs provide more than $150 billion a year in grants, loans, and work-study assistance. Read on to find out more and to find out how to apply for this aid.”

Yak, yak, yak. Your readers don’t care that you are the largest source of aid. They just want the money. So get to it – tell them what you’ve got and how they can get it.

“We provide more than $150 billion each year in grants, loans, and work-study programs. Find out how to apply.”

Here are the facts (right from our friends at the Plain Language Action and Information Network):

  • 79% of web readers scan – they don’t read every word
  • Web readers only read about 18% of what’s on a page
  • As the number of words on a page goes up, the percentage read goes down
  • On average, web readers only read the first two words on each line
  • Web readers can decide in as little as 5 seconds whether your site is useful to them

If you want satisfied customers – web readers – you’ve got to make it easy for them. You’ve got to figure out what they want/need to complete the task and then challenge yourself to convey it in as little space as possible. Limit the number of words. Use words your readers will look for and understand quickly. Use formatting (sometimes even graphics) to help convey meaning.

The Clearmark Award winners will be announced at the Center for Plain Language banquet on April 28. Go meet the winners in person, if you can; and hear how they made their websites “plain.” If you can’t go, check back on the Center for Plain Language website to see the winning entries. Then print out the Plain Language Guidelines on Plainlanguage.gov and go to work on your website.

I can’t say this enough. This is the most important thing you can do to improve your website. Fix the writing! Do your customers a huge favor. Cut out that yak, yak, yak.

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