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Customer Experience and Design

You’re smart if you can ‘dummy’ it down.

Dummy it down 1It may seem odd that I would discuss an article from academia (A new movement strives for simplicity), but hear me out. Most of us are moderately or highly literate on our respective areas of expertise. But guess what? Our colleagues and clients may not be at the same level of know-how. I could make the case that as the holder of an MBA, with a concentration in IT, that I should easily understand my colleagues’ technical lingo. Sad to say, I’m often nodding my head, “Yeah, I get that,” when my brain is saying, “Huh?”
So let’s have a come clean moment. At times and in certain contexts, we are all illiterate in some situations. At a recent UxPA conference, I heard this phenomenon referred to as “situational illiteracy.”  For instance, reading my healthcare provider’s full policies on what’s covered and what’s not typically sends me to the phone to hash it out with someone who understands what the jargon means. This is unfortunate and frustrating. It simply doesn’t have to be this way and the fix isn’t complicated: just use plain language. I know that it can be challenging to drop the jargon, and to distill complex ideas down to simple sentences. But we can do it!
Ahem, I am tempted at times to pad my words to come across as sounding ‘uber’ credible. As I think back that habit started some time ago. I recall an undergraduate term paper that I wrote for a Lit class. When it was finished, I was certain it would impress my instructor. She was impressed all right! She wrote on the paper’s front cover, “Your use of verbose language obscures your fine ideas and analysis of the literature.” Whoa, what a let down. And, I worked so diligently to pad my paper with impressive words.
Looking back, I am grateful to that professor. She started me on the quest to be a plain language writer, a journey I am still on to this day. And I’m not alone. Forbes contributor Amy Rees Anderson, like many others (see below), advocates for keeping it simple. Enough said.
Plain language resources and authors:
Definition and history of plain language
Center for Plain Language
Whitney Quesenbery on plain language
Universal Plain Language: an interview with Ginny Redish
Democracy is a design problem.

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Lisa McMichael

Lisa McMichael is a Senior Manager Digital Accessibility, CPACC with the Detroit Business Unit.

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