A guest post from Fearless Content Strategist Kelsey Johnston about plain language and its place in DesignOps.
What is plain language
Plain language is exactly what it sounds like — writing that is easy to read and understand.
If I’m in a room full of children, I’m not going to use college-level words that could be hard for them to understand. Now, if I was in a room full of academics, I could speak at a third-grade reading level, and while I may bore them, they would likely understand my message because of its simplicity.Though, it’s important to know your audience and intent when writing in plain language.
Plain language is more than the words on a web page or application — it is about making it easier for people to get their needs met.
Why plain language is important when designing government services
Everyone should have access to good government services. Repetitive or confusing copy works against the goal of helping people get what they need to complete an action.
Plain language is critical when communicating government services. We don’t want users to get lost or give up while trying to get help or information.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that federal agencies communicate in clear language that the public can understand and use. Learn more at plainlanguage.gov, an official government resource for plain language guidance.
How Fearless uses plain language
I work on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture team. Together, we are expanding virtual access to the museum’s collection. Through the development of the Searchable Museum, we aim to complement the museum’s in-person exhibitions, This will also provide global access to the important history and content.
We work alongside the museum’s curators who write the content for the Searchable Museum. The initial “Slavery and Freedom“ exhibition requires critical and contextual narrative, tone, and storytelling. The curators adapted most of the copy directly from the in-person exhibit.The museum has a style guide on educational language for its diverse audiences. We use plain language to write the button and directional copy on website pages.
At first, much of the placeholder button copy was repetitive text like, “See Stories.” While that is an action or directive, I knew it could be clearer for users.
I like to follow the principle that good button and directional copy answers the question, “what would you like to do?” If every button has “See Stories” as its directive, then users are less likely to know what the buttons do or to use them. Each button is an opportunity to really create a unique call to action that drives users to the next step in their experience. So instead of “See Stories,” “Start Exploring” is more clear and inviting.
Another thing to consider when writing microcopy are your action verbs. On the surface, “See Stories” may seem rather benign. However, terms like “see,” “watch,” or “view” exclude people with blindness or other disabilities. Thinking about the diverse needs of all users helps you write more useful copy. You can do this by including everyone in the conversation.
When you design content that answers: “what would you like to do?”, your users will be more successful. And this principle is not limited to use by content strategists and writers. This is a key piece of design ops to help anyone write in plain language.. Considering how you communicate with users and stakeholders through each step of the process helps everyone in the end.