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Experience Design

Plain Language and User Experience

Recently I attended Ginny Redish’s Plain language, Web Sites, Documents, and UX: You can do all that!, event hosted by the Usability Professional Association (UPA), DC Chapter.
As usual, when I attend dc events like IXDA and other miscellaneous UX meetups, I am usually the anomaly visual designer in the room.
The thing that I enjoyed about this event was the appreciation and importance of communication and information design and all the people that were there supporting it!
I am probably not alone in thinking that everything that is designed for humans by humans, needs to have some form of thought around communication and information design, whether it’s a website, a book, a pet robot, etc.
Ginny Redish brought up a great point. She mentioned that if you have an FAQ on your website, then you haven’t designed the site correctly, you have not engaged conversationally with the user and have not given them what they came there for – in plain language. If they cannot find what they are looking for and have to resort to an FAQ, it is a failed design.What she said, reminded me of how I think of charts and graphics. If you have to explain a lot and have a lot of text and verbiage, it seems like a failed visual design.
What Happens in an Actual Web Redesign Process…
As a visual designer on a user experience team in enterprise IT consulting, this event made me think about when terminology and language issues surface and then – what happens next….
My experience goes something like this:
a) “Oh you want to focus on the terminology and wording? That’s for the business to figure out. Let’s just get the navigation done and they can populate it with whatever words they want.”
Problem – the words have to be clear on where the user is being taken when clicking on one of those words. Once they get to the target page, the path should make sense to the user.
b) “Oh, let’s create a style guide with visual design guidelines and code snippets.”
Problem – where is the guide for implementing friendly and relevant language the converses with the users, rather than, tells users what the business thinks they need to know. Where is the guideline for developers when new functionality is added. Where are the guidelines for their new verbiage?
c) “We have a content strategy document – this is where we capture words and what goes in a dropdown.”
Problem – this is per piece of functionality , so ultimately who owns the overall language strategy across several apps within a main app? The tone and voice need to remain consistent throughout.
Parallel Redesigning as Part of the Process
Content and plain language are like fraternal twins. When a website is being redesigned after like 15 years of being the same, the conversation between the business and its customers also wants to change, but that is not always realized right away. As the site navigation and processes become redesigned and more efficient – the business may realize that the words and verbiage like instructions and information, can or also need to become more efficient and clear.
So how can we address plain language to improve the user experience in a website redesign project and in consulting? Where does it fit in the process? If it is such a valuable and proven contributing factor to long-term customer relationship success and ROI, why don’t we pay more attention to it?
Obama passed the plain language act in October, 2010 in order to create documents that are digestible. That is the essence of good design. Usability and relevance are key. Just like the accessibility push in government over the last few years at the national level, it seems like the plain language push will also soon come into focus and filter out into the mainstream.


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Tabetha Jones

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