Good Content Needs Plain Language

Dec 23, 2015

If good content is essential to good user experience, as Tyrus Manuel proposes in his November 23, 2015, DigitalGov post, then plain language is also part of good user experience. Plain language helps the public do what they need to do—find forms, apply for benefits, look up information and more—when they use federal websites and other digital tools.

The proverbial lost needle in a haystack is found.

All federal agencies are supposed to implement the Plain Writing Actplain-writing-act-of-2010/), the law that requires plain language when we communicate with the public. 18F’s content guide reiterates that plain language makes better websites and provides alternative words for common government jargon.

According to report cards from the Center for Plain Language, though, most agencies are doing just ok with plain language. There’s lots of room for improvement. To help its staff and others who use health terms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Everyday Words for Public Health Communication. It offers expert suggestions from CDC’s Health Literacy Council and other agency communicators on how to reduce jargon and replace problematic terms to improve comprehension.

A woman working at a laptop holds her head in her hands, appearing to confused or frustrated.

Everyday Words is based on years of experience and formative research by CDC’s communication staff testing materials with diverse audiences. It provides:

  • Substitute terms
  • Real-life examples of difficult public health passages
  • Revised wording
  • Tips to reinforce meaning and avoid other common pitfalls

Rewriting terms and examples took a long time and a lot of internal negotiations among communicators and subject matter experts. But, CDC’s staff also had a unique opportunity to reflect carefully on our jargon, what it means to us, what we think it means to others and how we can rethink our public communication.

At the January 27, 2015, Design in Government (DIG) meeting, I proposed content and design should work together to create clarity and help the public understand and use federal information and services. Each agency may be implementing plain language in its own way and at its own pace; however, everyone with a hand in public communication should create content and design that fits the law’s intention.

A close up of the dictionary definition of the word, simplicity.

Cynthia Baur, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor for Health Literacy and Senior Official for the Plain Writing Act at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.