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Make It Plain: Accessbility and Usability Through Plain Language

  1. Make It Plain: Accessibility and Usability Through Plain Language #PlainLanguageForAll / #UofIWebCon University of IL Web Conference: April 2013 Angela M. Hooker @AccessForAll
  2. These are summary slides • Thanks for viewing my slides! I’ve condensed and summarized 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. Also read the slide notes. • If you have trouble using these slides because of accessibility problems, please write to me at Even accessibility fans make mistakes, and I want to learn from mine. 2@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  3. The beauty of the web is … it’s a great place to have a conversation with your users 3@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  4. You want to: •Communicate your information so users will take action (buy, sell, read, subscribe, etc.) •Meet your users’ needs •Help them complete tasks or find important information 4@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
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  7. We’ve learned that we create technological barriers to our content, but sometimes, we also create barriers to understanding … with our words. 7@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  8. Common content problems 8@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  9. The wrong people write content 9 “For ‘tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petard, an’t shall go hard … WTH are you saying, Shakespeare? @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  10. Perhaps it’s the institution 10 The institution might dictate what content goes on the organization’s website. @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  11. “In order to make people understand your organization’s materials, and get one’s point across, so that everyone knows what one means, it’s important that one doesn’t ramble on and use more words than necessary.” (Some content is wordy.) 11@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  12. Jargon hides meaning “We’re implementing a skills mix adjustment at Acme Corp.” 12@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  13. Slang or regional terms 13 Some writers use slang and/or region or country-centric terms. @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  14. “Pedantic” content 14 Showy, extravagant words; overly precise; or formal: “The politicians pontificated about the failed budget.” @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  15. Forgetting the audience 15 Those examples of bad content aren’t meaningful to users. People write content without considering the intended and the potential audiences. @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  16. Just because someone can’t understand your content doesn’t mean they are unintelligent. 16 Blaming the users @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  17. “It’s not how you said it—it’s what you wrote or spoke. 17@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  18. How can plain language help? 18@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  19. Plain language is … … writing that people can easily understand the first time they read or hear it. 19@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  20. Plain language is … … usable and meets your users’ needs, so they can complete specific tasks on your site, social media channels, app, podcast, etc. 20@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  21. Your users won’t have to read your content several times to understand it. 21@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  22. It reduces user frustration, because it boosts reading ease. 22@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  23. People will respect your “brand,” and see your site as authoritative (this is not limited to for-profit sites). 23@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  24. You’ll retain more users, and your users will remain loyal to you. 24@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  25. These benefits can widen your site’s appeal, audience, and influence. 25@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  26. 26 “But 75 percent of _____ users are _____ with an advanced degree!” Don’t believe it! @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  27. Don’t believe it! 27 “Plain language isn’t sophisticated, it’s ‘dumbed down,’ or doesn’t reflect the gravity of the topic without using big words.” @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  28. Plain language isn’t “dumbed down” content —it’s about clearly communicating with whomever reads or hears your information and meeting their needs. 28@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  29. It doesn’t matter if you have valuable information if people can’t understand it, use it, react to it, or act on it. 29@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  30. Frustration = the back button Remember: Good content means access for everyone (or as many as possible)! 30@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  31. Using plain language supports “P-O-U-R” principles from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). 31@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  32. WCAG 2.0 principles of accessibility Perceivable Operable Understandable Robust 32@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  33. The “understandable” principle “Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. “This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).” 33@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  34. Plain language supports POUR Plain language makes your content accessible, and supports the goal of providing universal access for everyone (or as many as possible!). 34@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  35. Consider users with different needs 35@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 English speaker • A person who is cognitively impaired • A person with autism • It wasn’t scientific, but I tested two content examples @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  39. I asked for opinions … 39 You’ve probably noticed the popular trend to ask a question in the form of an incomplete sentence: “What do you think “Got milk?” 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 asking me 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 speaker said, [After a sigh] “I have a hard time with questions like these. “I don’t know if someone’s asking me for advice or 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 do 43@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  44. Learn plain language mechanics • Plain Language Guidelines from Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) • The Center for Plain Language’s guidelines • The Center for Plain Language’s checklist 44@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  45. Write for your specific audience. AND Write 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 your audience is intelligent, but don’t assume they’re familiar with your topic. 48@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  49. Use the inverted pyramid method: Put the most important information at the top and the background information below it. 49@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  50. 50 Be concise—cut out excess/filler words; use minimal text and short sentences. @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  51. 51 In print, people write to tell a story. Online, we should write about topics, so users can complete tasks. @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  52. 52 • Use action verbs—avoid “passive verbs.” In passive verbs, the subject of the sentence is not the “actor”—the noun that takes action in the sentence. The actor comes later, often in a prepositional phrase, or there may be no actor identified at 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 words Conduct an analysis Analyze Present a report Report Do an assessment Assess Provide assistance Assist (or help) Came to the conclusion of Concluded @AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  54. Use complete sentences. 54@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  55. Use familiar words and common terms. 55@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  56. Use the standard spelling of words, and resist the urge to combine words. Screen readers often mispronounce such words. For example, some screen readers pronounce “homepage” as “ho-mep-ahj.” This can confuse people who use screen readers to help with low literacy or low language proficiency issues. 56@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  57. Give direct instructions. 57@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  58. Talk with your users: use personal pronouns. 58@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  59. Use “must” instead of “shall” for requirements. 59@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  60. Avoid or explain jargon, colloquialisms, puns, country or region-specific terms (when writing for a broad audience), non- literal phrasing. 60@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  61. A word about technical content Define your purpose: Are you teaching or are you informing with your content? 61@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  62. Make your content clear by using structured elements, such as headings, bullets, lists, consistent navigation. 62@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  63. Test your content 63@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  64. Interview people about your content Ask users to read portions of your content and explain what they think it means. 64@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  65. Usability testing Write instructions and ask users to complete tasks on your site, app, etc. 65@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  66. Test two versions of your content Conduct “A/B testing” (called “controlled comparative studies”) interviews. Provide two versions of your content and ask participants to give their impressions of each version. 66@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  67. Final Words 67@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 clarity over 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 accessibility throughout your project lifecycle. 68@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  69. Resources 69@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  70. Resources: Plain Language • Plain Language Checklist: • Comprehensive Plain Language Guidelines: • Test Your Content (methods): 70@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  71. Resources: Plain Language • Plain language video: • User-centric content—“The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had,” by Angela Colter: 71@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  72. Resources: Addressing Disabilities • Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist: • Information about cognitive disabilities: 72@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  73. Resources: Writing Web Content • Accessibility for Web Writers, by 4 Syllables: lity-web-writers-part-1/ • Content and Usability: Web Writing: resources/web-usability/web-content.shtml • Writing Vibrant, Compelling Content: vibrant-compelling-copy 73@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  74. Resources: P-O-U-R • WCAG 2.0 Principles of Accessibility: WCAG20/intro.html • Constructing a POUR Website: 74@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  75. Resources: Websites • Center for Plain Language: • • Plain Language Association International: • Readability testing tools: p 75@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  76. Resources: Training • Online: aining/index.cfm • U.S. federal government agencies can get free plain language classes: aining/freetraining.cfm • Conferences and events: 76@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  77. Resources: Books • Janice (Ginny) Redish, Letting Go of the Words • Janice (Ginny) Redish, Writing Web Content that Worksi • Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English • Steve Krug, Rocket Surgery Made Easy • Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity 77@AccessForAll / #PlainLanguageForAll
  78. Thank you! Angela Hooker @AccessForAll 78

Editor's Notes

  1. You want to understand your users and see how you can meet their needs, right? You do this through a conversation .
  2. 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...
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Wordy content wastes your users’ time.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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.
  10. We must realize that some people can’t understand our writing, and it’s not their fault.
  11. In other words, it’s not me (your user); it’s you.
  12. Yes, they will respect your “authoritay.”
  13. 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.
  14. In summary: “good information” doesn’t matter; “good content” does.
  15. 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.
  16. “ got milk?” photograph courtesy of Makoto Ueki, @makoto_ueki
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Don’t worry that the first document is a US federal government document—the basic principles for plain language are the same.
  20. Don’t do this very thing illustrated here. What does this mean?
  21. 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.
  22. You’ll probably need to explain the basics of your topic.
  23. 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.
  24. Be direct in communicating what you or your organization is doing. Your users will see you as being proactive, authoritative, and responsible.
  25. 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.
  26. Take note that not all screen reader users are visually impaired.
  27. Clearly explain any processes, directions, etc. so people can take action.
  28. Using personal pronouns makes people feel like you’re having a conversation with them rather than dictating to them.
  29. 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.
  30. Frame your content with semantic structure in your HTML. Photo from
  31. 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.”