Monday, May 12, 2008

Usability of Content is Plain Language

The importance of plain language ...

"An exciting thing happened in the USA on 14th April 2008. It didn't quite manage to make it onto the national news - that day, we were mostly hearing about the Pope's visit to the USA. Any ideas? Any clue from my title? Give up?

The answer is that the USA House of Representatives passed the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008. It achieved bipartisan support, passing with a massive majority of 376-1. The lone opponent, the aptly-named U. S. Congressman Flake, issued this commentary on the topic: “Bad bill. Voted no”.

It's not a long Act. Its key sentences are its purpose:

"The purpose of this Act is to improve the Federal Government's effectiveness and accountability to the public by promoting clear communication that the public can understand and use".

and the definition:

"The term `plain language' means language that the intended audience can readily understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain language writing".

and the time requirement:

"Within one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, each agency -- (1) shall use plain language in any covered document of the agency issued or substantially revised after the date of the enactment of this Act"

OK, OK, it's not necessarily the easiest thing to read. (Plenty of in-jokes available here about the irony of a Plain Language Act itself having some obscure words in it). And it's not even really the law yet. The Senate has to have its go as well, and then the President. But the point is that Plain Language is back on the agenda of our sole super-power again.

Have a look at that 'purpose' sentence again: "that the intended audience can readily understand and use". Sounds very much like usability, doesn't it? And did you spot "clear, concise, well-organized"? Isn't that just what we strive for in our designs? That isn't a coincidence. There is a widely held misunderstanding that plain language is about following a specific set of rules for writing. It isn't."    (Continued via Usability News - Caroline's Corner)    [Usability Resources]


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