Theme:Usability of the Standard:Redish
Webinar: Why Plain Language is Critical for Standards
A webinar for TEITAC members
May 18, 2007
Janice (Ginny) Redish, Ph.D.
Redish & Associates, Inc. - http://www.redish.net
Webinar materials in Word format: http://www.wqusability.com/sandbox/Why-Plain-Language-is-Critical-for-Standards.doc
Links to sites used in this webinar
- State of Washington health and safety rules contents: http://www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/rules/corerules/default.htm
- Lighting: http://www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/rules/corerules/HTML/296-800-210.htm
- Basic Electrical Rules: http://www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/rules/corerules/HTML/296-800-280.htm
- Unemployment benefits: http://fortress.wa.gov/esd/portal/resources/wac/wac110-005.htm
- Social Security Administration (SSA: http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/402/402-0000.htm and http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/402/402-0130.htm and http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/402/402-0145.htm
- CB radios: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/government/radio.cfm
Let's define what we are talking about
Laws, regulations, and standards tell people what they must do and what they must not do in specific circumstances.
That is, to varying levels of detail, laws, regulations, and standards are about how people are supposed to behave.
Do you agree?
Standards are not just statements of facts; they are communications to people
If the purpose of a standard is to get people to behave in a certain way, the standard must communicate successfully to those people. If they do not understand what they are to do (and not to do), how will they follow the standard?
So we must be concerned about how successful the standard is as communication
What does it mean for a standard to communicate successfully? Here is my definition:
A standard (or law or regulation or other document) is successful if, and only if, the people who must use it can
- find what they need,
- understand what they find, and
- act appropriately on that understanding
in the time and effort that they are willing to spend on it.
It's all about "those people"
To communicate successfully, we must care not only about our content. We must also care equally about the people we are communicating with. We must ask and answer questions like these:
- Who will use the standard?
- What do they already know and not know?
- What words do they understand easily? What words that we might use do they not know?
- How busy are they?
- How fast will they be trying to find what they need and understand what they find?
- What special needs might they have?
So what about plain language?
You asked me to talk about plain language, and I haven't said those words until now. But, in fact, I have been talking about plain language. My definition of plain language is exactly the same as my definition of successful communication.
Plain language is all about knowing your audiences and creating the document that works for those audiences – creating the document in which they can
- find what they need,
- understand what they find, and
- act appropriately on that understanding
in the time and effort that they are willing to spend on it. If you, as an industry accessibility coordinator or a 508 accessibility coordinator, feel that you have to spend too much time explaining the provisions of the standard to people you work with, that probably means the provisions are not communicating as clearly as they need to.
And consider people who are trying to use the standards on their own. Their perception of time and effort is important. You are not there to read the standard to them, to tell them where the information is, or to explain it. We, as writers, do not decide how much time people are going to spend trying to figure out what we have written. They decide.
So when we write, we have to imagine people coming to the document and all the circumstances of their using the document. We have to write to them. That's what plain language is all about.
Can a legal document be in plain language?
I'm sure some of you are saying to yourselves now: That's fine, Ginny, we want to communicate successfully; but we're writing a technical and legal document. Can those concepts – "technical," "legal," and "plain language" – go together?
The answering is a resounding "yes." Documents can be
- technically accurate,
- legally accurate,
- legally sufficient, and also
- clear and understandable.
Four examples of regulations in plain language
Let's look at four examples:
1. Rules on health and safety in the workplace
This is the table of contents of a state regulation that affects every employer in the state of Washington.
Let's turn to two parts of these rules:
- Lighting: http://www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/rules/corerules/HTML/296-800-210.htm
- Basic Electrical Rules: http://www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/rules/corerules/HTML/296-800-280.htm
This has been on the books for about three years now and has not caused legal problems. Employers call the agency and say "thank you" for making it clear what they have to do.
2. Rules on getting unemployment benefits
We also have examples that are much older than that. Go to http://fortress.wa.gov/esd/portal/resources/wac/wac110-005.htm
These are rules for people applying for unemployment benefits. This is a legal document. It also speaks directly to the people who are affected by it. It raises questions and then answers them. It talks to people with "you." And it's been this way for at least 10 years and has not caused legal problems.
3. Rules about getting copies of records under FOIA
Federal agencies have also been writing in plain language. For example, the Social Security Administration writes its rules with "we" for the agency and "you" for the people it is talking to.
These are legal documents that have not caused legal problems.
4. Rules about operating a CB radio
And here is the oldest example that I know of on the federal books: the rules for Citizen Band Radios.
These rules have been in question and answer style with personal pronouns, short sentences, and clear writing since 1977. That's 30 years! And no judge has ever said that the plain language was a legal problem.
Plain language helps documents be legally accurate and legally sufficient
These are all legal documents in plain language. In fact, plain language supports the legal accuracy and legal sufficiency of documents like standards.
Over the past 30 years, I have worked with lawyers and subject matter specialists in many projects to revise legal documents so they are clear to the people who must follow them. In every case, we found legal problems in the original. The original was not, in fact, legally accurate, and in some cases not legally sufficient, because the language was so convoluted that even the lawyers did not know what it meant. Unclear language is often ambiguous. Plain language clears up ambiguities.
So how do we "do" plain language?
I've said that what counts as plain language depends on who the audience is. And that's true. But we also know a lot about what works for most people. So I can give you some good guidelines to start with – and then I'm going to recommend that you do usability testing with your specific audiences to be sure that you have the right guidelines and that you have used them well.
Where do the guidelines come from?
You may be asking why you should believe in the guidelines that I am going to work with you on in the next part of this webinar. My answer is that we have lots of research from several disciplines behind these guidelines.
- Cognitive psychology helps us understand how people read, remember, and use information.
- Linguistics gives us insights into language – including how people interact when communicating with each other.
- We also learn from reading research, research on writing, information design (also called document design), and other fields.
- And we have applied studies in which we watch and listen as people try to work with documents in real settings. Applied studies show us how people try to find information and how they try to understand what they find.
So there is a well-grounded research basis for these guidelines.
What should we do? Ten guidelines for plain language
Here are 10 guidelines that make a huge difference in creating a document that communicates successfully while keeping its legal accuracy. I'm going to list them and then work with you on each of them in turn.
- Make information easy to find with clear headings.
- Break up the information into manageable pieces.
- Put the pieces of the document in a logical order for your readers.
- Keep your sentences and paragraphs short.
- Set the context first. Put the pieces of a sentence in logical order for your readers.
- Talk to your readers. Use "you" and the imperative.
- Write in the active voice (most of the time).
- Put the action in the verb, not in the nouns.
- Use your readers' words.
- Use bulleted lists where appropriate – for a list of items and for parallel "if, then" sentences.
#1. Make information easy to find with clear headings.
Let's start by looking at an example. A few minutes ago, we looked at the rules for CB radios. Today, the rules say that you do not need a license to operate a CB radio, but when the plain language rules first came out, you did. And I have here one section of the rules explaining what you had to do when applying. The first example is from the old, not plain language rules from before 1977. The second example is from the then-new, 1977, plain language rules:
95.419 Mailing address furnished by licensee Except for applications submitted by Canadian citizens pursuant to agreement between the United States and Canada (TIAS No. 6931), each application shall set forth and each licensee shall furnish the Commission with an address in the United States to be used by the Commission in serving documents or directing correspondence to that licensee. Unless any licensee advises the Commission to the contrary, the address contained in the licensee’s most recent application will be used by the Commission for these purposes.
95.423 What address do I put on my application? (a) You must include your current complete mailing address and station address in the United States on your CB license application. (b) A Canadian General Radio Service licensee may supply a Canadian address if he or she is applying for permission to operate under TIAS No. 6931.
Take a moment to look at all the differences between the two versions.
First, what is your overall reaction?
Now, let's just consider the two headings. Which makes better connections to the person coming to the document?
If you were looking at the table of contents of the whole document, which would better help you understand the document and find the right place?
Questions are a sentence structure we all recognize. What's the sentence structure of the original heading?
When you read the word "furnish," what picture comes into your head? We have to be very careful with the words we use. Words trigger associations in people's heads. If our words trigger the wrong associations, we make understanding more difficult for our readers.
What about the word "licensees" in the original heading? Is it accurate? So even the heading here was not quite legally accurate.
Questions work extremely well as headings in many types of documents, including regulations. That's because people come to the document with a question in mind. The questions you use for headings must be in the user's voice – the questions the user would ask.
Other types of headings also work well.
Depending on the information, you could use imperatives as headings:
Provide keyboard equivalents for all mouse actions
You could use statements as headings:
Every mouse action must have a keyboard equivalent
#2. Break up the information into manageable pieces.
Look again at the two versions of the provision from the CB rules. Notice that the first is one long sentence and the second has two parts. Which is easier to deal with? Why?
People react to length even before they try to read a sentence or a paragraph. Was your reaction to the old version of the CB radio rule an initial "I don't want to read this"? Most documents in the workplace aren't high motivation. We have to make them easy for people to use – to overcome that initial "I don't have time to deal with this."
#3. Put the pieces of the document in a logical order for your readers
In the plain language version of the CB rule that we have been looking at, the information is broken into pieces and each piece is for a different audience. People want to quickly find just what is relevant to them.
Why is the information in the order it is in? In this case, the writers put the information that affects most people first.
Putting the pieces in logical order is an important principle on every level – for the whole standard, for each part, and within each provision. Just as an example, think about regulations for getting a driver's license. You would need regulations on
- getting a license as a new driver
- changing information on your license
- renewing your license
If you came to this regulation, would you expect information on renewing your license to come before or after information on getting a license as a new driver?
People have expectations about what is logical, about where to look for information. Plain language is about meeting those expectations.
#4. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short.
We have already talked people's initial negative reaction to long paragraphs. Long paragraphs also often combine many thoughts and thus they overtax people's short term (or working) memory. Long sentences often have convolutions that cause problems for people. Let's leave the CB rules example for now and consider a different one:
Interested persons, on or before September 15, 2006, may submit to the Hearing Clerk, 1000 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20000, written comments regarding this proposal.
Do you find this sentence easy to grasp? What are you doing as you read it? Are you untangling it into pieces.
If we analyze this sentence, we can see that there is a basic sentence hidden in it:
Interested persons…may submit…written comments.
The other parts are intrusions that interrupt that important basic thought.
Look at the next example. Isn't this a better way of presenting the information – and it allows us to expand the ways of sending in your comments:
We invite you to comment on this proposal. Deadline: September 15, 2006 You may submit your comments in any of these three ways By mail to… Hearing Clerk 1000 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 2000 By fax to… 202-555-1234 Attn: John Jones Electronically at www…
When we work in plain language, we think about how to make documents useful to people. We also think in "scenarios," we imagine those people working with the document. In this case, people coming to this provision have to make three separate decisions:
- Am I interested? If not, I don't need the information about the deadline or how to get comments to them.
- When is it due? If the deadline is next week, I may be interested but not able to do it.
- How do I send in my comments? I only need the street address or fax number or web address later when I have my comments ready.
When you (mentally) walk through the document in the reader's shoes, you begin to see how to organize and write for the reader – and that's what plain language is all about.
#5. Set the context first. Put the pieces of a sentence in logical order for your readers.
The sentence we just looked at had too much stuck in the middle. Another problem that sentences often get into is related to the issue we looked at earlier about the logical order of information.
Read the sentence in the box. Is it instantly clear?
Approved fumigation with methyl bromide at normal atmospheric pressure, in accordance with the following procedure, upon arrival at the port of entry, is hereby prescribed as a condition of importation for shipments of yams from foreign countries.
Now imagine that you are part of the agency that has this rule. The telephone rings and it is someone asking a question to which this information is the answer. Say the information in this sentence the way you would say it to the person on the telephone.
A sentence like this has many pieces. Did you say the pieces in the same order as they are in the original?
No? Where did you start? Why did you start there?
Always start by answering the implied question "what are we talking about?" The sentence pattern "if, then" is one that people understand easily. Always start with the "if" part because that gives the context. And you don't have to write "then" every time, just give the second part after a comma.
If you are importing yams into the United States, they must be fumigated when they arrive at the port of entry. The approved fumigation method is to use methyl bromide at normal atmospheric pressure, following this procedure:
That's what I mean by putting the context first and by putting the pieces in a logical order even on the sentence level.
#6. Talk to your readers. Use "you" and the imperative.
When you were looking at the two versions of the CB rules example, I'm sure you remarked that the second one talked directly to the reader. It used "you" in section a). In fact, if I were revising that provision today, I would use "you" in b) also. I would rewrite b) this way: "If you already hold a license under the Canadian General Radio Service and are applying under the cooperative agreement between the US and Canada (TIAS 6931), you may give a Canadian address on your application."
Isn't that even more plain language than the 1977 plain language version? That's also an example of how you can identify "you" when there are different people who are "you" in different sections of a standard.
#7. Write in the active voice (most of the time).
Even if you do not use "you," you can still write in the active voice.
Consider a sentence like this one:
Retention of patient records for a period of seven years is a requirement for doctors.
If I ask you what it means, you would probably say this:
Doctors must keep patients' records for seven years.
Why not write it that way? People understand sentences best when we start with "who" has to do the action. That's the logical order: "who does what."
Consider a sentence like this:
Form 35 must be completed by all applicants.
That sentence is in the passive voice. It starts with the object. People have to read all the way to the end to find out if it applies to them. Rewrite it as:
All applicants must complete Form 35.
The active sentence is shorter, stronger, clearer, and in logical order. We can make it even shorter and stronger with "you" or the imperative:
You must complete Form 35. Complete Form 35.
You can also write an active sentence about "software" or "the standard." For example,
The software must always show which interface object has the keyboard focus. For text entry fields, this can be a visual indicator at the place where a user will insert text.
#8. Put the action in the verb, not in the nouns.
Passive voice makes sentences hard to understand. So does hiding the action in a noun. Consider this sentence:
Transmission of the messages by fax or email is allowed.
If you had to explain that to someone, what would you say? Wouldn't you say something like:
You may send the messages by fax or email.
"Transmission" is a noun that hides the verb "transmit." "Send" is a shorter, easier verb that means the same thing.
#9. Use your readers' words.
You know you have a very broad audience for the standard. Consider how well they know the technical vocabulary that seems so ordinary to you. When you can, use ordinary words, not highly technical ones. When you must use a technical word, explain it clearly in simpler words.
For non-technical words, use the shortest, simplest word you can. The simple words work best for all of us. Lower-literacy readers may not know the Latin-based words. High-literacy readers are often the busiest and most impatient of your readers, and they, too, read the short, simple words faster than the long words.
#10. Use bulleted lists where appropriate – for a list of items and for parallel "if, then" sentences.
People are going to use your standard. They want to use it as quickly and easily as possible. Lists help people find and understand information quickly and easily.
Consider this example from a federal regulation:
Thirty calendar days prior to the public hearing, or, if no public hearing is held, 30 calendar days before the deadline for submittal to the agency, the draft plan must be submitted to the committee for review.
How easy is it to understand what you are supposed to do? If we untangled the sentence, we would find that the provision talks to two different groups of people. That leads us to having two "if, then" sentences. To make those sentences easy for people to see and understand, we can put them into a bulleted list.
You must submit your draft plan to the committee for review. • If there will be a public hearing on your plan, the committee must receive your draft plan 30 calendar days before the public hearing. • If there will not be a public hearing on your plan, the committee must receive your draft plan 30 calendar days before the agency's deadline for submitting plans.
A few last words: On usability testing
These guidelines will help you write a standard that is legally and technically accurate and sufficient and that also communicates clearly. But writing is a very messy activity. Most documents go through many drafts. And audiences differ. So you always have to see if what you actually wrote works for the people who have to follow the standard.
And the way to do that is usability testing – having even a few people from your audiences (not you; not other committee members) try to find what they need and try to understand what they find in your draft standard.
You cannot get the same information from a grade level formula. Grade-level (readability) formulas were developed for children's textbooks and popular magazines – not for legal or technical material. They are based on a simplistic and very out-dated theory of how we read and use information. Your document can score well on a formula and still not be useful or usable. Usability testing is the only way to find out if you have succeeded in communicating clearly with your audiences.
And a parting comment: Plain language helps everyone.
People with cognitive disabilities need simple, straightforward text. High-literacy, busy people trying to do things quickly benefit from the same simple, straightforward text.
People who listen to information scan with their ears just as sighted people scan with their eyes. Good headings, logical order, information broken into manageable pieces, short sentences, and bulleted lists all help people who are scanning – with their ears or their eyes.
Plain language works for all of us. It promotes the accessibility that you are trying to achieve with this standard. Shouldn't you be practicing what the standard is trying to achieve?
Questions and Answers from the Seminar
Transcripts of some of the discussion during the seminar, lightly edited.
Is a standard a results or instructions?
Andi Snow-Weaver: I think a standard describes a result or an outcome that must be achieved, rather than being directions on how to achieve that outcome.
Ginny: It's fine if you think of the standard as describing results. You still have to communicate successfully with people so they understand the result because they have to behave in order to achieve that result. Whether we talk about results or directions, we are still talking about how important successful communication is.
What about "terms of art"?
Tim Creagan: I am with the access board staff. I see your definition that to be successful with law and regulations, people need to be able to find it, understand it and get it found within a limited amount of time. It seems to me that most standards or laws are not written in that approach and that context. Many laws include terms of art. Many drafts say to you that we cannot change the wording because it must stay that way.
Ginny: I hear you, Tim. I will say, in response to what you just said, the words of the late Professor David Melinkoff who was at UCLA law school. He wrote wonderful books about the language of the law. He said it isn't the terms of the art that are the problem. It's the sentences that they get tangled up in.
Yes, occasionally there is a term of art we cannot change. We can explain it sometimes. But the problem with most documents that people have trouble with is that there is far more in their way than the specific terms of art. That is, in fact, what we are going to spend the rest of the time talking about: all of those other barriers that we can get rid of. I hope that is comforting.
Are headings that are questions enforceable?
Elizabeth Stewart: I know when we addressed the issues of the question and answer formats in the past, our concern had to do with enforcement. It would be great if you could address that: enforcement. It's one thing to have a regulation that says how do you request a record such as you do on the Social Security site. It's another to actually require something. And I saw in your earlier examples that, in fact, in the section on Lighting, you were mandating action, but our concern was always enforcement in a question and answer format.
Ginny: That's a great question. A little later, I am going to say you don't have to use the question and answer format to do plain language, but it does work very well.
How do you link to definitions?
Tim Creagan: One of the things when I look at the plain language examples and the other earlier examples of the freedom of information request, some of the terms that are used -- somebody reading it is wondering if it is defined. For instance, looking at the government language of am I eligible of operating a CB radio. If someone needed a definition of what those terms are, I am not seeing links on this page to get them to that information. Is there a way to say: if you don't understand this page, there is a place where you can go to find additional information.
Ginny: The defined terms are traditionally found in the beginning of a law or regulation. If you look at the Washington State Core Rules with the Lighting or the Electrical Rules, you will see a number of terms in green on gray. Those are all of the defined terms. You can click on them; they are links. If you click on them, you will get to the definitions.
Reactions to looking at a dense paragraph
Tim C: A little psychology here: I am an attorney. I am used to the first paragraph. I would be suspicious of looking at the second one.
Ginny: Thank you for admitting that. It is always a first shock. It's not what you areused to. But as you get into doing plain language, you will realize that you will get much greater voluntary compliance if you write in the way the second one is written.
Jim Elekes: I've got this on refreshable braille and a screen reader. The second example is far cleaner and discernible. As a matter of fact, as far as reading speed, I was able to boost it about 40 percent higher. And with the refreshable braille, I didn't have to go back and reread because of the punctuation, because of the easier way of reading. This enhances the experience for a person who is blind, the reading ability, and the understandability, and the usability.
Ginny: Thank you very much for that, Jim. I will tell you that is not only true for people whp need AT to get through this. My basic guideline when I work with people is: If you have to read the sentence more than once to understand it, it doesn't work. I think sighted people who are reading also have trouble with the first example because it is so long and so convoluted.
In what order should information be communicated?
Jim Elekes: If you are developing a standard, then, if I am following your presentation, then you should always or as appropriate, list the most significant, i. e., the highest standards first and then the decisions leading up to that goal or standard afterwards.
Ginny: That's one way of doing it. In this area of plain language, we have two competing principles: One is: deal with the thing that is most people have to do deal with first. The other is: don't make people go through a lot only to find out that it didn't apply to them.
You may have to consider two organizational schemes and then find the best one that serves most people most of the time.
Does plain language make things longer?
Tim C: The original language of the invitation to submit comments is three lines and the revision is 14. If I am writing a final regulation, then I don't want to triple the length of it.
Ginny: I agree with you... but. The "but" is that sometimes it is actually easier for people to work with a document that is a little bit longer. One thing to consider is that in fact, people using your standards are not reading and using every page of it. They are using the parts of it that apply to the specific things that they are doing. So helping people to find and understand the pieces that apply to them is really critical. Also if it's online, then the length is not nearly as much of an issue as it was in the old paper days. As you untangle the sentences, you may find that you don't need all of the words that you had in the original. It often balances itself out.
Jim E: I am looking at this from a [ indiscernible ] viewpoint. In the example, it almost sounds that you are begrudgingly asking for the information, because of the form and the format. With the format that you presented (as a rewrite) you are not only saying "here are the options", but also "we welcome all interested comers."
Ginny: I would hope so. I would like to say that plain language is not just shorter words. It's also helping the reader. I am hearing you say we want to bring the readers into this so they will voluntarily follow these regulation. The more we think about and communicate with the readers, the more likely we are able to succeed in helping them use these documents.
How do readers know who "you" is?
Gregg Vanderheiden: First of all I think this has been really helpful. One of the things that arose as I tried to puzzle it out myself: Let's say you have the one where you can send by fax or mail. I don't want to overthink this, but would some people think they sent it (this message) to me so only I can send it (my comment) by fax or mail. Can I give it to my secretary or am I the one who has to send it?
Ginny: You raise a good point, Greg, and one of the things you have to watch as you are writing in plain language is that you are being legally accurate.
Gregg: You know "it can be sent" just begs the question entirely of who is authorized to send it.
Ginny: If we have to be more legally accurate about who can send it, then we can name the authorized person. I have an example that talks about a corporation, a partnership, and so on, and then shows who is the authorized person for each one.
I have one other example that I hope will make you feel better about how people take the use of "you." There is a Social Security Administration regulation about World War II veterans and it starts out something like "If you are physically able and mentally competent, then you must sign the form. If you are not, then your guardian may sign it." As far as I know, guardians have not had trouble understanding that the "you" is always the veteran.
Gregg: That's interesting, because in that second case, you are almost certainly the guardian reading this. In the first example, any of the ambiguity was there in the first place.