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May 17, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

Tell It To Me Straight: Plain Language in UX

Ever been confused by an error message? Or unsure how to proceed with a dialogue box? You’re not alone. Communicating clearly in our interfaces and websites is crucial to creating a great user experience.

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Ambiguous error messages that are not written in plain language can be frustrating to users, and leave them wondering what to do next. ‘Ok’ is not a logical answer to the question ‘Are you sure?’

An introduction to plain language

As a concept, plain language has a long history. It gained additional traction in the context of government in the 1990s, when people noticed how much of a hurdle government speak and legalese was for people trying to access services. Plain language is ‘reader-focused writing’. We can think of the approach as being an extension of ‘user-centredness’. It makes sense that when we are designing in a user-centered way, we try to be reader-centred in the content and UI copy that we are creating.

It is important to note that the audience and their behaviour are central to measuring the success of plain language approaches – just as user centred design requires us to define a user, plain language is contextual to the reader. The measures of efficacy, according to the Centre for Plain Language, are whether the reader can:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Act appropriately on that understanding

How Plain language improves UX

Writing in plain language helps the user to easily understand the content that they are engaging with, and the choices that are available when faced with calls to action or dialogue boxes. The higher the level of clarity, the better the experience.

This makes it more efficient for users to move through a flow, and complete their tasks. When ambiguity is removed, this frees up cognitive power and lets people work faster. A smooth experience is one where the user does not need to spend extra time decoding what a button will do or an error message is saying.

Plain language also makes digital experiences more accessible, as it supports a range of reading levels and abilities. The readability of content needs to be considered, by reducing the amount of effort it takes to read and interpret it. As with all accessibility considerations, this benefits all users, not just those who may have reading disabilities such as dyslexia or a lower education level. Research has shown that people with very high literacy levels also prefer plain language.

Principles of Plain Language

  • Using the active voice rather than the passive voice – this will increase readability and decrease ambiguity. “The man was bitten by the dog” is an example of passive voice. “The dog bit the man” is written in active voice.
  • In general, aim for shorter words and shorter sentences.
  • Avoid acronyms, and explain any uncommon words. Do not make assumptions about what your audience knows.
  • For a general public audience, a readability rule of thumb is to aim for 8th grade reading level.

Getting Better at Plain Language

Being able to write clearly and choose appropriate interface content and copy is like any skill, and can be improved and developed with practice. It often falls to the UX designer to make decisions around button copy and error messages. Depending on the project, we may not have control over other aspects of content, but we can make recommendations and advocate for appropriate language.

Writing and tone style guides can be helpful when thinking about writing for the web. A popular and well regarded example is the UK’s government digital service style guide, which can be a great place to start for work intended for a wide ranging or public audience.

Plain Language Tools

When you are writing copy or text for websites and interfaces, there are some great tools that can help you to achieve plain language. The Centre for Plain Language has a useful checklist which can inform your process.

One of my favourites is the feature in programs like Microsoft Word, which assess the readability of text. There are also online options available. Inputting the text and running the feature will result in a readability report.

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Example of a readability report from readability-score.com, which uses several different algorithms to measure readability.

There are several different algorithms that are used to assess reading level. In general, a grade level score uses US grade school reading levels to rate the text. A ‘reading ease’ score rates the text on a 100 point scale, where the higher the score, the easier the text is to read. Getting in the habit of testing what you write will go a long way towards improving your plain language writing skills!

Another useful tool is xkcd simple writer, which will highlight words that are not among the 1,000 most commonly used words. The point here is not to get hung up on using only that set of words, but simply being aware of what vocabulary may be adding complexity. Gov.uk has published a list of words to avoid when writing in plain language.

A very simple but powerful approach is to read what you have written aloud – does the dialogue box text and the options make sense?

Plain Language in Action

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Creative Commons licenses have made efforts to take complex legal documents and write them in plain English. Any terms that might be unclear are linked to further definitions.

The Creative Commons human-readable summaries of their license terms are a great example of plain language in use. Their unique approach means that each license has three layers – a legal document, a plain language version and a machine readable version. By adapting the language for the user, Creative Commons succeeds in a great user experience for their products.

I once worked on a project with a large public library. Designing the online account required careful consideration of the many library users who did not have English as a first language. Terms in the interface such as ‘accruing fines’ were causing difficulty and confusion. Choosing and testing these labels was a huge part of the UX work. ‘Fines payable on return/renewal of overdue items’ was the label that tested best, after many iterations, and lead to most clarity for users. Part of the learning here is that plain language may not always mean the shortest way to say something, if it’s not the clearest for the audience.

Conclusion

When the words in an interface are well chosen and thought out, it becomes easier for the user to get through the experience and achieve what they need. This applies to all of the content on screen, from error messages and button labels to headlines and copy. Plain language is a natural extension of putting your user front and center, and catering to their needs.

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