Usability in Civic Life: Usable Access
About Plain Language
Plain language not only makes information easier to find, understand and use, but also makes them more usable for people with cognitive, language and learning disabilities.
Plain language experts and usability professionals share an understanding that knowing your audience (through user research), writing for them, and evaluating the results are keys to success. The connection between usability professionals and plain language experts is clear in the description in What is a plain language expert?
"Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily."
- Professor Robert Eagleson, Australia
Guidelines for plain language
Writing simply is not easy, but several web sites offer basic guidelines to help you create or evaluate any document. The guidelines below are from Why plain language is critical for standards, a webinar by Ginny Redish for the Access Board TEITAC Advisory Committee (May 18, 2007).
- Make information easy to find with clear headings.
- Break up the information into manageable pieces.
- Put the pieces of the document in a logical order for your readers.
- Keep your sentences and paragraphs short.
- Set the context first. Put the pieces of a sentence in logical order for your readers.
- Talk to your readers. Use "you" and the imperative.
- Write in the active voice (most of the time).
- Put the action in the verb, not in the nouns.
- Use your readers' words.
- Use bulleted lists where appropriate – for a list of items and for parallel "if, then" sentences
Other guidelines and checklists:
- Checklist for plain language on the web
- "Writing for the Web: Plain Language" from webcontent.gov
- US Federal Register: Guidance on making regulations readable
Examples of plain language
- Short samples from PLAIN and from plainlanguage.gov
- Washington State Licenses and Inspections Department "Core Rules"
- Federal Trade Commision Report: Improving Privacy Notices for Consumers
Presentations from the 2008 Celebration of Usability in Civic Life
- If it's not readable, it's not usable: the link between plain language and usability (ppt, 229Kb) by Dr. Annetta Cheek, Center for Plain Language
- Center for Plain Language poster (pdf, 121Kb- 33" x 47")
The PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) site provides a updates on international government initiatives.
The Center for Plain Language added a suggestion that "Plain Language in government writing should be the law of the land" to the Citizen's Briefing Book, hosted by then President-Elect Barack Obama.
In 2007, two new bills - Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007- were introduced in the US Congress, to require that any “letter, publication, form, notice, or instruction” be issued in plain language. House bill HR 3548 passed 376 to 1, but Senate bill S2291 never came up for a vote.
- A Push for Plain English - Washington Post, October 29, 2007
- UPA letter of support: UPA Supports Easier Access to Government for all Citizens
The first plain language law in the US, Plain Talk Oregon, was signed on May 8, 2007. In 2006, a bill was introduced in the US Congress, but did not become law.
- Usable Regulations: Legislation Pending in the US Congress by Thom Haller, UPA Voice
- UPA letter to Congress - May 5, 2006
Plain language organizations
- The Center for Plain Language
- The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)