Universal Plain Language: An interview with Ginny Redish

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  • An edited version of this interview appears in Chapter 8 of A Web for Everyone.

    Photo of GinnyGinny Redish has been helping people write clearly for all of her career. She does research and analysis to understand what’s hard about reading and writing, and follows up with guidelines that people can use to make reading and writing easier.

    In our experience, language and content often get less attention than other elements in design projects. We wanted to learn from Ginny how to make language more of a priority.

    Plain language is important for accessibility

    Plain language is all about accessibility—making information understandable for everyone. Of course, plain language specifically benefits people with low literacy, of which there are many. ”The rate of functional illiteracy in many countries of the world is shockingly large.”

    However, we all have difficulty reading at some time or another, for physical or cognitive reasons, or when encountering an unknown topic or language. “Even people who are high literacy sometimes have problems reading—when they are under stress, or when it’s an unfamiliar topic.” In the end, “plain language is valuable—even necessary—to just about everybody.”

    Plain language is particularly important on “functional websites,” where people go to get information and accomplish tasks. When you use plain language, “people can find what they need, understand what they find, and use that to accomplish whatever it is they need to accomplish.” And plain does not mean dull.

    “It’s not a matter of dumbing down. It’s a matter of meeting people where they are and saving people’s time. People don’t come to functional websites to waste time. They are very busy with other parts of their lives. They need to be able to find, understand, and use the information in the time and effort that they think it’s worth.”

    Plain language fits well with the concepts of universal design

    Can one source of information work for everyone? For universal plain language, “whenever possible, you want to have one source that works for everybody, and when that is not possible, you want to satisfy everybody’s needs.” In this way, Ginny’s approach maps well to the universal design concepts of same means of use, equivalent use, and accommodation.

    Same means of use. In universal design, the idea is to build in flexibility so that different people can use the same design with individual tweaks to met their needs. “In some aspects of the web, you can build in flexibility that allows people to take something and make it work for them.” For example, people with low vision can enlarge text or switch to a high contrast view.

    “However, with the language part of a design it’s harder because you have to choose which words to use.” Plain language gives you the broadest “same means of use.” In most cases, following plain language guidelines will allow you to reach all your audiences with a single content source.

    Equivalent use. For times when one size does not fit all, it may be necessary to provide different versions. “When you have different audiences who are coming to the same topic with different backgrounds, different needs, and different vocabularies, you may need to provide different content.” For example, Ginny worked on the National Cancer Institute website, which provides two sets of information: one for patients and families and one for health professionals. “We can think of this as ‘equivalent means of use’ because the more technical language used for health professionals is ‘plain’ from their perspective. And both sets of information are available to everyone, so individuals choose which to read—or read both.”

    In all cases, following plain language guidelines is critical. As Ginny stresses, “You always want to write straightforward sentences.”

    Accommodation. “If you write your main content in plain language, you will reach a wider range of your audience, but there could be people for whom that is not simple enough.” In these cases, it may be necessary to look to an accommodation, such as Easy Read Online. This service uses techniques like video, images, and simplified text to modify documents for people with learning disabilities and little or no reading ability.

    The risk with alternative versions is maintenance–keeping the main and alternative content in sync and up to date.

    Ten years ago, the solution to accessibility for many websites—if they did anything at all—was to create a separate, text-only version. That turns out to be a very bad idea. They are meant to be equivalent, but after a short time they aren’t equivalent. Separate but equal is never equal.

    For this reason, if you decide to create multiple versions, you should do so deliberately and with caution. When working on a project that appears to require different versions, Ginny notes, “I only agree if I know we have different audiences who need different content.”

    Design projects need content people

    Key decisions such as this illustrate the importance of having a content strategist on the design team. Typically, teams don’t consider content until the very end of the design process, and then content providers scramble to replace “lorem ipsum” placeholder text with actual information. And more often than not, the people producing the words are not trained as writers, never mind in the techniques of plain language. As a result, the very thing people come for—information—is often the most poorly implemented part of a design.

    People who come to websites don’t come to navigate. They don’t come to admire your design. Obviously, the design and navigation are potential barriers, and they have to be good so as not to be barriers. But what people come for is the content, and the content is both information design and language. Understanding its importance and making content an integral part of the process is critical.

    Planning is critical to successful plain language

    With Ginny, plain language starts at the beginning of the design process, with three planning questions.

    The first question is: “Why? What are you trying to achieve?” In considering content, you may have one purpose or many, but the purposes cannot be vague, like “to give people information.” They must be “actionable purposes with measurable results.” Ginny gives as an example the purpose of information contained in a university catalog: “We want people who have never been to a university to make good choices about programs that would be appropriate for them to take, and we want them to choose to come to our university.”

    The second planning question is: “Who? Who are your site visitors?” “One of the problems with websites is that the people writing the website are often extremely knowledgeable about the domain of the website. They forget that a lot of the people coming to the site are not as familiar.” Personas are a great way to “see” the people you are writing for. For universal plain language, personas should represent varying abilities with language and literacy, including non-native-language speakers, people with little education, and people with cognitive disabilities.

    The third planning question is: “Why are these people coming to your website?” To answer this question, you need to get inside the heads of your personas to learn what they want to know.

    When users go to visit a website, they have a goal, a need, a task in their heads. They are starting the conversation with the site.

    In that way, the web is different from paper. If I get an envelope in the mail, the writer has started the conversation. Sure, I have to open and read it; but I don’t start with something in mind. My first question is: “What is the author trying to do or say to me?”

    Online, it’s always the site visitor who starts the conversation. So the only way to write clearly is to ask yourself: “If someone comes to my website and they are interested in the topic, what do they want to know? What is the conversation?”

    This notion of writing for conversation can be a difficult concept to get across, especially to people who have no training in writing or who were trained to write for academic journals. “When people hire me to conduct a workshop on writing for the web, they assume I’m going to jump in and teach 10 plain language guidelines, but I don’t start there.” Instead, she starts with purposes and personas and the need for conversation. “You have to convince them that the only way to achieve business goals is to satisfy the site visitor’s conversation. Only then are they ready to work through the guidelines.”

    Plain language must be part of the design process from the start

    Implementing plain language in the design process requires content people, real content, and a commitment to conversation.

    • Content people. Every project should have professional content people on the team from the start–people who know how to write “clearly and conversationally.”
    • Real content. Prototypes should use real content from the beginning. And teams should test and modify content throughout the process, along with other design elements. Ginny urges, “No more lorem ipsum!”
    • Commitment to conversation. The design team should adopt a philosophy based on engaging in a conversation. “Your content strategy can’t be a one-way spewing of information. It needs to be answering site visitors’ questions. And if you think about content as a conversation, you are much more likely to write in plain language.”

    Making a commitment to plain language and integrating plain language into the design process improves accessibility in an integrated and holistic way. No one is adversely affected by language that is clear and to the point—in fact, everyone understands better. Working toward the goal of universal plain language is one of the best ways to improve the user experience for everyone.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the ADA movement has been how often something created to meet the needs of a special group of people has turned out to be useful for everybody. Plain language is the same. People think of plain language for a low literacy audience. But when we simplify and clarify for a low literacy audience, high literacy people benefit just as much, and sometimes even more.