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Make It Plain: Accessbility and Usability Through Plain Language
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Make It Plain: Accessbility and Usability Through Plain Language


We know that “content is king” on the web, and content clarity determines whether a user can complete a task, such as registering for a course, finding a job, or shopping. We can provide accessible, …

We know that “content is king” on the web, and content clarity determines whether a user can complete a task, such as registering for a course, finding a job, or shopping. We can provide accessible, usable content–and make those tasks easier to complete–by writing content in plain language.

Plain language is a major building block of an effective website. Unclear content frustrates users and causes them to abandon sites quickly. However, by focusing on top tasks, eliminating unnecessary words, using common terms, and writing well-structured content, we ensure that our sites are usable and accessible, and almost everyone can understand the messages we wish to communicate and use our sites successfully.

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  • You want to understand your users and see how you can meet their needs, right? You do this through a conversation .
  • We have more challenges in our communications now that the web has moved beyond everyday content that we find in text, graphics, blogs, videos, podcasts, and...
  • Now, we have more dynamic, real-time interactions through social media, dynamic apps, etc. These extra channels for content make it challenging for us to communicate clearly and consistently, but we can through thoughtful planning.
  • Your users shouldn’t have to use Cliff Notes to understand your content because it’s written in a way that they can’t understand. Sometimes management chooses the wrong people to write content for their products. Choose someone who is qualified specifically for the web versus a print writer—the needs for print and web are very different. This includes whomever writes content for your videos, podcasts, and other web-based, verbal content.
  • Sometimes organizational policy dictates what must go on a website, but in many of those cases, management doesn’t think about what users need and want.
  • Wordy content wastes your users’ time.
  • In other words, “We’re firing employees at Acme Corp.” In this example, will employees respect your company’s “politically correct” terms, or do they want to hear the clearly stated truth from management? Often, using jargon like this creates mistrust.
  • Know your audience—if you want a global audience, avoid country-centric terms. However, if you’re speaking to a specific group of people who know and use certain terms, use them, too!
  • It’s clearer to say that the politicians addressed, lectured, or ranted about reasons for the failed budget. These are words that most people understand.
  • We must realize that some people can’t understand our writing, and it’s not their fault.
  • In other words, it’s not me (your user); it’s you.
  • Yes, they will respect your “authoritay.”
  • Did you know that people with advanced degrees might encounter barriers to their understanding, too? It doesn’t matter how well educated one is or is not—understandability can affect anyone. Highly educated people, like other users, can get frustrated when they try to use your content.
  • In summary: “good information” doesn’t matter; “good content” does.
  • In both content examples I tested, the problem came from using a non-standard, grammatically-incorrect sentence. The users saw that the content was missing a noun, which would have clarified the sentences.
  • “ got milk?” photograph courtesy of Makoto Ueki, @makoto_ueki
  • This woman is a highly-educated developer. After thinking carefully, she did understand what the phrase meant; however, she spent extra time determining the meaning. This would make her experience on a website inefficient.
  • Here’s another example of a casual, grammatically incorrect sentence which is missing a noun. In this case, the sentence is missing the word “I.” If “I” were in the sentence, its meaning would be clear: “I hope you can make this important session!” The young woman I talked with was still unclear about its meaning, even when I gave her the context because, as she said, “It still could mean several of these answers.” The problem is, punctuating an incomplete sentences. When you add punctuation, you’re telling me that everything I need to understand what you’re saying is there.
  • Don’t worry that the first document is a US federal government document—the basic principles for plain language are the same.
  • Don’t do this very thing illustrated here. What does this mean?
  • A meat cleaver minus The Fonz (otherwise known as Fonzie or Arthur Fonzarelli) equals what? “ Cleaver,” minus “A” (The Fonz’s famous saying was, “Aaaaaaa …”) = “clever” Don’t be clever: Your users want to get directly to your content. Most people won’t take the time to figure out what difficult content means, and some people won’t be familiar with certain concepts, so they could get frustrated and leave before they find what they need.
  • You’ll probably need to explain the basics of your topic.
  • This makes you the action hero (!)—you’re taking the active role in talking about yourself, your institution, or your products. You’re taking responsibility, and often people go to sites to see just whom is responsible for something.
  • Be direct in communicating what you or your organization is doing. Your users will see you as being proactive, authoritative, and responsible.
  • This is an actual quote from a blogger who writes about good content. I was waiting for a link to the article. There wasn’t one—the writer was informing readers that she read an article. Hmm.
  • Take note that not all screen reader users are visually impaired.
  • Clearly explain any processes, directions, etc. so people can take action.
  • Using personal pronouns makes people feel like you’re having a conversation with them rather than dictating to them.
  • At the risk of being overly precise, are you teaching specialized content to experienced practitioners, or are you informing the general public about a topic? Write to your audience accordingly.
  • Frame your content with semantic structure in your HTML. Photo from
  • Testing two versions of content is very effective. User responses will help you find the clearest content and commonly used terms. It’s also helpful if you need to show management that users can’t understand and use “institutional content.”


  • 1. Make It Plain:Accessibility and UsabilityThrough Plain Language#PlainLanguageForAll / #UofIWebConUniversity of IL Web Conference: April 2013Angela M.
  • 2. These are summary slides• Thanks for viewing my slides! I’ve condensed andsummarized what I presented in my session.• Please visit the links that I’ve included inside the slides—they’re underlined so you can find them easily. Alsoread the slide notes.• If you have trouble using these slides because ofaccessibility problems, please write to me Even accessibility fans makemistakes, and I want to learn from mine.2@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 3. The beauty of the web is… it’s a great place tohave a conversationwith your users3@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 4. You want to:•Communicate yourinformation so users will takeaction (buy, sell, read,subscribe, etc.)•Meet your users’ needs•Help them complete tasks orfind important information4@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 5. 5@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 6. 6@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 7. We’ve learned thatwe createtechnologicalbarriers to ourcontent, butsometimes, we alsocreate barriers tounderstanding …with our words.7@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 8. Common content problems8@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 9. The wrong people write content9“For ‘tis the sport tohave the enginerhoist with his ownpetard, an’t shall gohard … WTH are yousaying, Shakespeare?@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 10. Perhaps it’s the institution10The institutionmight dictate whatcontent goes onthe organization’swebsite.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 11. “In order to make people understand yourorganization’s materials, and get one’s pointacross, so that everyone knows what onemeans, it’s important that one doesn’tramble on and use more words thannecessary.”(Some content is wordy.)11@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 12. Jargon hides meaning“We’reimplementing askills mixadjustment atAcme Corp.”12@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 13. Slang or regional terms13Some writers useslang and/orregion orcountry-centricterms.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 14. “Pedantic” content14Showy,extravagantwords; overlyprecise; or formal:“The politicianspontificatedabout the failedbudget.”@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 15. Forgetting the audience15Those examples ofbad content aren’tmeaningful to users.People write contentwithout consideringthe intended and thepotential audiences.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 16. Just becausesomeone can’tunderstand yourcontent doesn’tmean they areunintelligent.16Blaming the users@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 17. “It’s not how yousaid it—it’s whatyou wrote orspoke.17@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 18. How can plain languagehelp?18@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 19. Plain language is …… writing that people can easily understandthe first time they read or hear it.19@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 20. Plain language is …… usable and meets your users’ needs, so theycan complete specific tasks on your site,social media channels, app, podcast, etc.20@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 21. Your users won’thave to read yourcontent severaltimes tounderstand it.21@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 22. It reduces userfrustration,because it boostsreading ease.22@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 23. People will respectyour “brand,” andsee your site asauthoritative (thisis not limited tofor-profit sites).23@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 24. You’ll retain moreusers, and yourusers will remainloyal to you.24@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 25. These benefits canwiden your site’sappeal, audience,and influence.25@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 26. 26“But 75 percentof _____ usersare _____ with anadvanceddegree!”Don’t believe it!@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 27. Don’t believe it!27“Plain languageisn’t sophisticated,it’s ‘dumbeddown,’ or doesn’treflect the gravityof the topicwithout using bigwords.”@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 28. Plain language isn’t “dumbed down” content—it’s about clearly communicating withwhomever reads or hears your informationand meeting their needs.28@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 29. It doesn’t matter ifyou have valuableinformation ifpeople can’tunderstand it, useit, react to it, or acton it.29@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 30. Frustration = the back buttonRemember: Goodcontent meansaccess for everyone(or as many aspossible)!30@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 31. Using plain language supports“P-O-U-R” principles from theWeb Content AccessibilityGuidelines (WCAG 2.0).31@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 32. WCAG 2.0 principles ofaccessibilityPerceivableOperableUnderstandableRobust32@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 33. The “understandable” principle“Information and the operation of user interfacemust be understandable.“This means that users must be able to understandthe information as well as the operation of the userinterface (the content or operation cannot bebeyond their understanding).”33@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 34. Plain language supports POURPlain language makesyour content accessible,and supports the goal ofproviding universalaccess for everyone (oras many as possible!).34@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 35. Consider users withdifferent needs35@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 36. Don’t forget …36• People with low literacy skills• People with low language proficiency• People with cognitive impairments• People with autism/Asperger syndrome• People with dyslexia• People who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing• People who are aging@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 37. For example …37@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 38. Three people …38• A non-native Englishspeaker• A person who iscognitively impaired• A person with autism• It wasn’t scientific,but I tested twocontent examples@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 39. I asked for opinions …39You’ve probably noticedthe popular trend to ask aquestion in the form of anincomplete sentence:“What do you think “Gotmilk?” means?@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 40. I asked for opinions …40“Got milk?”The person who is cognitively impaired said,“What type of milk is got milk, and who’s askingme about it?“Do they want my milk?“Does someone think I have a cow?”@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 41. I asked for opinions …41“Got milk?”The person who is a non-native English speakersaid,[After a sigh] “I have a hard time with questionslike these.“I don’t know if someone’s asking me for adviceor if they want something of mine.”@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 42. I asked for opinions …42“Hope you can make this important session!”The person who has autism said,“Am I supposed to hope?“Is one person hoping?“Is a group of people hoping?“Is someone talking to Hope?“Is she (Hope) supposed to go to an important session?“Does someone want me to create a session?“Should Hope or I make a session important? How would we do that?”@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 43. Here’s what you can do43@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 44. Learn plain language mechanics• Plain Language Guidelines from Plain Language Action andInformation Network (PLAIN)• The Center for Plain Language’s guidelines• The Center for Plain Language’s checklist / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 45. Write for your specific audience.ANDWrite for average comprehension.45@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 46. Don’t do this …46?@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 47. (Don’t be “clever.”)47?@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 48. Assume that youraudience is intelligent,but don’t assumethey’re familiar withyour topic.48@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 49. Use the invertedpyramid method:Put the mostimportantinformation at thetop and thebackgroundinformation belowit.49@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 50. 50Be concise—cut outexcess/filler words;use minimal textand shortsentences.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 51. 51In print, peoplewrite to tell a story.Online, we shouldwrite about topics,so users cancomplete tasks.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 52. 52• Use action verbs—avoid “passive verbs.”In passive verbs, the subject of thesentence is not the “actor”—the noun thattakes action in the sentence. The actorcomes later, often in a prepositionalphrase, or there may be no actor identifiedat all.No: The new report was published.Yes: We published the new report.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 53. 53“Hidden verbs” hide the action in your writing,by adding unneeded words.Instead of these phrases Use these wordsConduct an analysis AnalyzePresent a report ReportDo an assessment AssessProvide assistance Assist (or help)Came to the conclusion of Concluded@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 54. Use completesentences.54@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 55. Use familiar words andcommon terms.55@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 56. Use the standard spelling of words, andresist the urge to combine words. Screenreaders often mispronounce such words.For example, some screen readerspronounce “homepage” as “ho-mep-ahj.”This can confuse people who use screenreaders to help with low literacy or lowlanguage proficiency issues.56@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 57. Give directinstructions.57@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 58. Talk with yourusers: use personalpronouns.58@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 59. Use “must”instead of “shall”for requirements.59@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 60. Avoid or explainjargon, colloquialisms,puns, country orregion-specific terms(when writing for abroad audience), non-literal phrasing.60@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 61. A word about technical contentDefine your purpose:Are you teaching or areyou informing withyour content?61@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 62. Make your content clearby using structuredelements, such asheadings, bullets, lists,consistent navigation.62@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 63. Test your content63@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 64. Interview people about your contentAsk users toread portions ofyour contentand explainwhat they thinkit means.64@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 65. Usability testingWrite instructionsand ask users tocomplete tasks onyour site, app, etc.65@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 66. Test two versions of your contentConduct “A/Btesting” (called“controlledcomparative studies”)interviews. Providetwo versions of yourcontent and askparticipants to givetheir impressions ofeach version.66@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 67. Final Words67@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 68. Final thoughts …1. Consider your users’ needs first.2. Your users want to complete a task.3. Have a conversation—speak directly to your users.4. Use everyday terms people understand.5. Don’t follow trendy content practices—choose clarityover trends.6. Each medium (mobile, desktop, app, video, podcast, etc.)may require tailored content.7. Test your content.8. All of these help you incorporate accessibilitythroughout your project lifecycle.68@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 69. Resources69@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 70. Resources: Plain Language• Plain Language Checklist:• Comprehensive Plain Language Guidelines:• Test Your Content (methods): / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 71. Resources: Plain Language• Plain language video:• User-centric content—“The Audience YouDidn’t Know You Had,” by Angela Colter: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 72. Resources: Addressing Disabilities• Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist:• Information about cognitive disabilities: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 73. Resources: Writing Web Content• Accessibility for Web Writers, by 4 Syllables:• Content and Usability: Web Writing:• Writing Vibrant, Compelling Content: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 74. Resources: P-O-U-R• WCAG 2.0 Principles of Accessibility:• Constructing a POUR Website: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 75. Resources: Websites• Center for Plain Language:•• Plain Language Association International:• Readability testing tools: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 76. Resources: Training• Online:• U.S. federal government agencies can get freeplain language classes:• Conferences and events: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 77. Resources: Books• Janice (Ginny) Redish, Letting Go of the Words• Janice (Ginny) Redish, Writing Web Content thatWorksi• Patricia T. OConner, Woe Is I: The GrammarphobesGuide to Better English in Plain English• Steve Krug, Rocket Surgery Made Easy• Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability: The Practiceof Simplicity77@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  • 78. Thank you!Angela Hooker@AccessForAllange@angelahooker.comangelahooker.com78