“Plain Language” Is More Than Words

Plain language is critical to great customer service. You may think that “plain language” is all about getting the words right. Well, words are a big part of it. But there’s more to it than that. “Plain” means information you can find, understand, and use quickly and easily. So, in addition to choosing the right words, how the information is organized and presented is critical to making content “plain.”

For the past 3 years, I’ve served as a website judge for the U.S. Clearmark Plain Language Awards and New Zealand’s WritemarkPlain Writing Awards. Here are the factors we discuss when we assess nominations and websites:

1. Purpose – Is the purpose of the site clear on the home page so visitors know quickly whether or not this site is for them? Is the purpose of each page you review clear, without relying on the reader having visited other pages on the site? Based on the pages you review, does the site stay focused on its purpose (doesn’t stray into tangents, get off subject)?

2. Organization – Is content organized in categories that would make sense to typical customers? Is navigation obvious? Is navigation consistent from page to page? Are the words used for navigation clear and unambiguous so the readers know exactly what they will find? Are navigation categories organized in logical sequences, helping the customer know where to begin and what to do next? Is content layered appropriately so customers can find what they want quickly? Does content anticipate audience wants and needs? Can customers find top tasks from the home page?

3. Writing – Are sentences and paragraphs short and to the point? Are they written conversationally, using “you,” “we,” and “us” and avoiding impersonal third person narrative? Do they use active verbs? Do they use words that the typical audience will know and understand the first time they read them? Has the writing been edited to avoid redundancy and extraneous information that isn’t essential to make the points? Does the site avoid jargon? Does the site spell out acronyms on every page they appear? Are words spelled correctly?

4. Design – Is the site designed to make skimming easy? Is the most important information placed where readers look first (the “F”)? Does the site use headers and sub-headers, bullets and numbers, color to highlight important information, and other design devices to make skimming easy? Are pages relatively short? Are fonts consistent, and are they easy to see on a computer? Is there ample use of white space?

5. Graphics and links – Do graphics add value to the site by adding or clarifying important information – no gratuitous graphics? Are graphics designed and placed to support the content and not distract the reader (no “eye-stoppers”)? Do links add value to the content? Are links labeled or described so readers know what they will find?

6. Accessibility – Does the site use best practices to help people who are visually impaired (for example, dark fonts on light backgrounds, links describe target content)? Does the site use best practices to help people who are hearing impaired (videos and audio files have captions)? Does the site use best practices to make the site accessible to people with slow internet connections – this is especially important for government websites that should be accessible to all citizens (text alternative to large graphics, readers are warned about download time when linking to graphic files, home page and top navigation pages limit graphic load?

7. Performance measures – Has the organization done usability testing? Is the organization tracking measures to make sure customers can find and use what they want as fast and effectively as possible?

8. Overall assessment – Is this site easy to use? Would this site be a good example for others who want to make their sites easier to understand and use?

So, give it a shot. Score your website using a scale of 1-5 (5 is practically perfect, 3 is average, 1 has a lot of problems and needs an overhaul) on each factor.

How did you fare? Would you be a winner? If so, watch for the announcements for the 2013 Clearmark Awards and 2013 Writemark Awards and nominate your site. If not, get to work. For great customer service, keep it plain!

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