Usability in Civic Life

What Is a Plain Language Expert?

A plain language expert combines skills in writing, information design, and usability. A plain language expert can help make instructions, headings, and other text clear to voters. This article provides help in evaluating someone as a plain language expert. For more information about writing in plain language, see the PlainLanguage.gov web site.

How to recognize a plain language expert

1. Ask to see a portfolio.
A plain language expert should have examples to show you.

2. Ask the plain language expert to explain some of the examples.
The portfolio may include "befores and afters," examples where the expert has revised a document. Ask the expert to explain the reasons for the changes.

The portfolio may include documents created from scratch. Ask the expert to explain both the process it took and the rationale for the choices of how the expert organized, wrote, and formatted the document.

3. Expect the plain language expert to focus on the users of the document.
In discussing any project to create or revise a document, a plain language expert will focus on the readers (users) as much or more than on the messages. Plain language is reader-focused writing. A plain language document is one in which readers can find what they need and understand what they find in the time and effort that they want to spend.

Many plain language experts will tell you that the word "user" is better than "reader" for most documents. People do not want to "read." They want to get information out of the document or use the document to complete a task. Typical users skim, skip, and read just enough to help them move forward with whatever they are trying to do. A plain language expert knows that people work with documents this way.

4. Expect the plain language expert to talk about the context in which the document is used.
A plain language expert thinks about where, when, and how users will work with the document. For example, voters trying to understand a ballot while voting are in a public place (even if they have privacy within the voting booth itself). They may feel pressured to work quickly (even if that pressure is self-imposed), especially if there is a long line of people waiting. They may be anxious because they want to complete the task correctly while feeling unsure of the technology they are using. The plain language expert should tell you that all of these contextual factors mean that the language on a ballot must be very simple because we know that people's reading ability diminishes under stress.

5. Plain language experts focus on more than sentences and words.
When reviewing or creating a document, a plain language expert considers the organization and presentation of the information as important as the sentences and words. Organization means the order in which the points are made and where in the document users will find different messages. Presentation means the way the information (text and graphics) are put down on the page.

6. Plain language experts help users skim, skip, and find quick pathways through a document.
Plain language experts know that clear, understandable headings (in bold or color) are critical to help people meet their need to quickly grasp how a document is organized and to quickly find the information they need.

7. Plain language experts write clearly.
Here are some of the guidelines that plain language experts should talk about when they explain their writing to you:

  • Put the main message of the entire document first.
  • Keep each paragraph short and on one topic.
  • Start each paragraph with a topic sentence. If users read only that sentence, they will understand the main point of the paragraph.
  • Keep each sentence short. A sentence should cover only one thought, or two closely related thoughts. A good test for sentence length is this: If the reader has to read the sentence more than once to understand it, the sentence is too long.
  • Put extra information in a separate sentence.
  • Write in the positive, if at all possible.
  • Write in the active voice, whenever possible. A sentence in the active voice explains "who is doing what."
      - Active voice: You must select one of these candidates.
      - Passive voice: One of these candidates must be selected.
  • Address the reader as "you."
  • Give the user information in small chunks. Break up paragraphs and sentences by using lists, tables, and other ways of helping users grab information quickly.
  • When giving instructions, use numbered lists. Make each action a separate step.
  • Use words that the readers (users) of this document know.
  • Prefer the plain, simple, most common word.
  • Avoid legal jargon.
  • If you must use a technical term, explain it in parentheses right after the technical term. Even better, explain first and put the technical term in parentheses.

8. Plain language experts are also information designers.
Plain language experts know that the way the information looks on the page (or screen) is critical. Readers react to their first impression of a document even before they try to read it. The design of the information can help or hinder users as they try to work with a document.

Expect a plain language expert to talk about these points in information design:

  • Space: Using blank space to help users find their way through a document, to separate different parts of the document, and to quickly locate a specific part of a document.
  • Grid: Setting up imaginary lines (margins) on the page or screen and lining up elements of the document on the grid so that the page looks clean, clear, and not too busy.
  • Type: Using a type font and size that makes reading easy for the users. Using larger type when the audience is older. Using differences in type to indicate specific parts of the document, for example, to differentiate headings from text.
  • Pathways: Using layout to help people know how to move through a document.

9. Ask the plain language expert how they know they have succeeded in creating a useful and usable document.
A plain language expert may not have had the opportunity to test the document with users but should speak about the importance of doing so. They should know what usability testing is and know how it differs from a focus group. (In a usability test, you have users actually try to work with a document. In a focus group, you have several users talk about their reactions to a document. Because we are dealing with functional documents – ballots, instructions, brochures – we are interested in behavior not just in subjective reactions.)

10. Review the expert's work yourself.
Try to use the documents that are representative of the plain language expert's work. What task would a user have with this document (selecting who to vote for? setting up a voting booth? etc.)? Try to do that task with the document. Is the document inviting? Is the type legible? Is it easy to follow the pathway through the document? Is each message where it will be most meaningful and useful to the reader? Can you get through the text without feeling overwhelmed? Without having to go back and read again? Do you know all the words? Does the design of the document help you?


This information was contributed by Dr. Janice (Ginny) Redish, Redish and Associates

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