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Make It Plain: Accessbility and Usability Through Plain Language


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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.

Published in: Technology, Design
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Make It Plain: Accessbility and Usability Through Plain Language

  1. 1. Make It Plain:Accessibility and UsabilityThrough Plain Language#PlainLanguageForAll / #UofIWebConUniversity of IL Web Conference: April 2013Angela M.
  2. 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. 3. The beauty of the web is… it’s a great place tohave a conversationwith your users3@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  4. 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. 5@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  6. 6. 6@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  7. 7. We’ve learned thatwe createtechnologicalbarriers to ourcontent, butsometimes, we alsocreate barriers tounderstanding …with our words.7@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  8. 8. Common content problems8@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  9. 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. 10. Perhaps it’s the institution10The institutionmight dictate whatcontent goes onthe organization’swebsite.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  11. 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. 12. Jargon hides meaning“We’reimplementing askills mixadjustment atAcme Corp.”12@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  13. 13. Slang or regional terms13Some writers useslang and/orregion orcountry-centricterms.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  14. 14. “Pedantic” content14Showy,extravagantwords; overlyprecise; or formal:“The politicianspontificatedabout the failedbudget.”@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  15. 15. Forgetting the audience15Those examples ofbad content aren’tmeaningful to users.People write contentwithout consideringthe intended and thepotential audiences.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  16. 16. Just becausesomeone can’tunderstand yourcontent doesn’tmean they areunintelligent.16Blaming the users@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  17. 17. “It’s not how yousaid it—it’s whatyou wrote orspoke.17@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  18. 18. How can plain languagehelp?18@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  19. 19. Plain language is …… writing that people can easily understandthe first time they read or hear it.19@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  20. 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. 21. Your users won’thave to read yourcontent severaltimes tounderstand it.21@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  22. 22. It reduces userfrustration,because it boostsreading ease.22@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  23. 23. People will respectyour “brand,” andsee your site asauthoritative (thisis not limited tofor-profit sites).23@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  24. 24. You’ll retain moreusers, and yourusers will remainloyal to you.24@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  25. 25. These benefits canwiden your site’sappeal, audience,and influence.25@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  26. 26. 26“But 75 percentof _____ usersare _____ with anadvanceddegree!”Don’t believe it!@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  27. 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. 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. 29. It doesn’t matter ifyou have valuableinformation ifpeople can’tunderstand it, useit, react to it, or acton it.29@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  30. 30. Frustration = the back buttonRemember: Goodcontent meansaccess for everyone(or as many aspossible)!30@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  31. 31. Using plain language supports“P-O-U-R” principles from theWeb Content AccessibilityGuidelines (WCAG 2.0).31@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  32. 32. WCAG 2.0 principles ofaccessibilityPerceivableOperableUnderstandableRobust32@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  33. 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. 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. 35. Consider users withdifferent needs35@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  36. 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. 37. For example …37@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  38. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 43. Here’s what you can do43@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  44. 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. 45. Write for your specific audience.ANDWrite for average comprehension.45@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  46. 46. Don’t do this …46?@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  47. 47. (Don’t be “clever.”)47?@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  48. 48. Assume that youraudience is intelligent,but don’t assumethey’re familiar withyour topic.48@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  49. 49. Use the invertedpyramid method:Put the mostimportantinformation at thetop and thebackgroundinformation belowit.49@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  50. 50. 50Be concise—cut outexcess/filler words;use minimal textand shortsentences.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  51. 51. 51In print, peoplewrite to tell a story.Online, we shouldwrite about topics,so users cancomplete tasks.@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  52. 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. 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. 54. Use completesentences.54@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  55. 55. Use familiar words andcommon terms.55@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  56. 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. 57. Give directinstructions.57@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  58. 58. Talk with yourusers: use personalpronouns.58@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  59. 59. Use “must”instead of “shall”for requirements.59@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  60. 60. Avoid or explainjargon, colloquialisms,puns, country orregion-specific terms(when writing for abroad audience), non-literal phrasing.60@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  61. 61. A word about technical contentDefine your purpose:Are you teaching or areyou informing withyour content?61@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  62. 62. Make your content clearby using structuredelements, such asheadings, bullets, lists,consistent navigation.62@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  63. 63. Test your content63@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  64. 64. Interview people about your contentAsk users toread portions ofyour contentand explainwhat they thinkit means.64@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  65. 65. Usability testingWrite instructionsand ask users tocomplete tasks onyour site, app, etc.65@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  66. 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. 67. Final Words67@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  68. 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. 69. Resources69@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  70. 70. Resources: Plain Language• Plain Language Checklist:• Comprehensive Plain Language Guidelines:• Test Your Content (methods): / #PlainLanguageForAll
  71. 71. Resources: Plain Language• Plain language video:• User-centric content—“The Audience YouDidn’t Know You Had,” by Angela Colter: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  72. 72. Resources: Addressing Disabilities• Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist:• Information about cognitive disabilities: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  73. 73. Resources: Writing Web Content• Accessibility for Web Writers, by 4 Syllables:• Content and Usability: Web Writing:• Writing Vibrant, Compelling Content: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  74. 74. Resources: P-O-U-R• WCAG 2.0 Principles of Accessibility:• Constructing a POUR Website: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  75. 75. Resources: Websites• Center for Plain Language:•• Plain Language Association International:• Readability testing tools: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  76. 76. Resources: Training• Online:• U.S. federal government agencies can get freeplain language classes:• Conferences and events: / #PlainLanguageForAll
  77. 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. 78. Thank you!Angela Hooker@AccessForAllange@angelahooker.comangelahooker.com78