Measuring plain language on websites

“A communication is in plain language if it meets the needs of its audience— by using language, structure, and design so clearly and effectively that the audience has the best possible chance of readily finding what they need, understanding it, and using it.” (Dr. Anetta Cheek)

I love this description recommended by Dr. Anetta Cheek in the Clarity Journal. Check out page 10 to see how well it lends itself to sophisticated, yet easy to use, standards.

It’s what she calls an outcomes-focused definition of plain language.  It incorporates the other two types described as (1) numerical or formula-based (measured through readability indices) and (2) elements-focused definitions. Proponents of the second view deconstruct the elements contributing to plain language as structure, design, content and vocabulary. Although useful in helping the author arrive at a text written in plain language, only the outcomes-focused definition “places the needs of the audience over any other consideration” (Cheek, p9), and measures it accordingly. It also aligns to everything I’ve learned about Results-based Management and User-Centred Design.

Plain language; the usability perspective

Defined in measurable terms, plain language is “Any communication is useful, usable, and in plain language if and only if the people who come to it can:

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find
  • act appropriately on that understanding”

This is the definition currently used by Center for Plain Language developed by Ginny Redish.

How can we measure plain language on websites?

Usability testing is one of the best measures of plain language when taking an outcomes-based view. It’s already common practice within the Web writing community. Readability indices can be a useful tool while writing, but I wouldn’t recommend using one as a performance measure. If you believe that plain language is more about the recipient’s comprehension of your message than about simple sentence structure, then we need to judge clarity from the users’ perspective. Because usability testing every page is unrealistic for most of us, I propose these alternative methods for measuring usability of web content.

Can users find what they need? “Findability” can be measured by analyzing the results of your internal and external search engines to see what people searched for, whether you have that content, and whether or not the user arrived at that page.

Can users understand what they find? High priority tasks must be usability tested. To get detailed feedback on every page, a was this page useful? feedback feature works well. What I like about this approach, besides the fact that it’s measured in the context of using the web, rather than relying on memory, is that users will often give suggestions for improvements, or at least state exactly what is unclear.  Ongoing feedback from this method can be used to improve individual web pages that are rated poorly.

Can users act appropriately on that understanding? Measure on-site goals through conversion rates (such as paying online, donating money, subscribing to newsletter). Define your own desired “conversions” and measure through web analytics software.  Off-line goals (any kind of action that takes place in the real world, such as eating healthy, exercising daily, or voting) must be measured through a survey or third-party data that measures the frequency of that behaviour.

About Laura

As a Business Analyst working for the Canadian federal government in Web usability, I have the opportunity to be a part of a growing movement of professionals implementing user-centered design principles.
This entry was posted in Content, Government websites, Measuring success, Usability & User-Centred Design and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Measuring plain language on websites

  1. Pingback: To measure or not to measure | Really Clear Writing

  2. Pingback: Why we need to learn from the world of Web usability to evaluate written communication | Really Clear Writing

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