Usability of content is plain language

US government buildings on Capitol HillAn exciting thing happened in the USA on 14th April 2008. It didn’t quite manage to make it onto the national news – that day, we were mostly hearing about the Pope’s visit to the United States.  Any ideas? Any clue from my title?

USA House of Representatives passes Plain Language Act

The answer is that the USA House of Representatives passed the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008. It achieved bipartisan support, passing with a massive majority of 376-1. The lone opponent, the aptly-named US Congressman Flake, issued this commentary on the topic: “Bad bill.  Voted no”.

It’s not a long Act. Its key sentences are its purpose:

“The purpose of this Act is to improve the Federal Government’s effectiveness and accountability to the public by promoting clear communication that the public can understand and use”.

And the definition:

“The term ‘plain language’ means language that the intended audience can readily understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain language writing”.

And the time requirement:

“Within one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, each agency – (1) shall use plain language in any covered document of the agency issued or substantially revised after the date of the enactment of this Act”

OK, OK, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to read. (Plenty of in-jokes available here about the irony of a Plain Language Act itself having some obscure words in it). And it’s not even really the law yet. The Senate has to have its go as well, and then the President. But the point is that Plain Language is back on the agenda of our sole super-power.

Plain language matters

Have a look at that ‘purpose’ sentence again: “that the intended audience can readily understand and use”. Sounds very much like usability, doesn’t it? And did you spot “clear, concise, well-organized”? Isn’t that just what we strive for in our designs? That isn’t a coincidence. There is a widely held misunderstanding that plain language is about following a specific set of rules for writing. It isn’t.

Plain language doesn’t mean avoiding jargon: it means selecting the right words for your audience. If you’re writing for doctors, use medical terms. If you’re writing for Unix geeks, you can use phrases like “cat file /dev/null”. If you’re writing for Federal Government, it’s OK to say ‘covered document’.

Plain language doesn’t mean a slavish adherence to a specific set of rules. For a start, there is no widely-accepted set of rules. William Lutz has 39 Rules for Writing Plain English. On my writing website, Editing that Works, I opted for 9 principles that create a process, and that group together about 30 suggestions.  I’ve seen a set of just 8 rules. None of these details matter: the important point isn’t the rules themselves – it’s the user-centred attitude.

And finally, plain language definitely doesn’t mean ‘write as you wish, then use a readability formula to tell you whether you’ve got there’. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the Gunning Fog Index, the SMOG index, or whichever one you’ve found, all have the same limitation: they work by counting and calculating. Like automated accessibility checkers, at best they can tell you that you have a really bad problem to solve. At worst, incomprehensible material gets a ‘pass’, the author is happy, but none of the users can understand it.

So what is plain language? In Ginny Redish’s superb definition, it’s language that allows users to ‘find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding’. Usability of content, in other words.

Write to your senator

If you happen to be a US citizen, do the rest of us a favour and write to your senator expressing your support for the Plain Language Act. We’ll thank you for it.

This article first appeared in Usability News, 11 May 2008

Image, On the hill, by Eric B Walker, creative commons