Why plain English isn't 'dumbing down'

I was in a meeting recently and was finally confronted with a phrase I've been expecting to hear since I started in content design. “No, I don't agree, that's just dumbing down.” Someone had finally used the words “dumbing down” when discussing the content. It's been a long time coming.

Without an understanding of content and how users read on the web, it would be easy to just chuck all the information you know onto the page. But there's important reasons we use plain English and write the way we do.

Plain English

Google Dictionary defines plain English as:

“clear and unambiguous language, without the use of technical or difficult terms”

It's using language simply so it's as easy to understand as possible.

We do this because we don't read on the web the same way we read printed media, such as books and newspapers. We scan the page. As mentioned in a previous article, we don't read fluidly, we saccade. This is when your eyes move from one point of the page to the other in no particular order, jumping quickly all over the place.

Our content also has to fight against outside influences. Our readers have lives, thoughts and emotions that can get in the way of reading huge amounts of technical text online. They might have children fighting for their attention, or they might have been through a recent trauma. They might just have something better and more interesting to do. So making the content easy to understand and simple to follow is the most important thing we can do as writers.

This is why content should be task-focused where possible, especially for services. If we want the user to do something, tell them what to do and how to do it quickly and easily. They don't have the time to sit down and read through guidance after guidance. If they need to know something, tell them it straight away at the top of the page.

Using plain English also helps us write in a way that considers the reader's emotions. If they're using an online service to organise a funeral after a death they don't need witty marketing content. They need to be clearly told what they need to do in a considerate way. Plain English helps avoid language that can be misconstrued as offensive or hurtful.

The curse of knowledge

Stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) often feel writing in plain English is “dumbing down”. There's a number of reasons they might think this.

“The content has lost its meaning”

This is easy to resolve. We can simply reword the content to say what we want to say. That's why content writing should be iterative and why we get SMEs to fact check before publishing.

“There's a legal responsibility to use certain terms”

If legal or technical terms have to be used then we should explain what they mean. The best time to explain is when the term is first used. We should never assume a user knows what it means and by explaining it simply we bring the reader into our knowledge.

“Everyone knows what that is because I and my colleagues do”

A content designer at Government Digital Services (GDS) told me a good term for this: the curse of knowledge. In Jane Kennedy's book ‘Debiasing the Curse of Knowledge in Audit Judgment' she defines the curse of knowledge as:

“a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand”

By being the expert in your area, by knowing what it all means, it's easy to assume everyone knows it. We're all guilty of it, myself included. It's easy to think “if I know this, surely they do”, but that assumption is the difference between your content being accessible or not.

User needs

The most important aspect of your content is the user need. This is why design teams should hire content designers. We are the gatekeepers of content and can stop complex information being dumped onto the page. You only need to provide content the user needs to know and read.

Let's look at an example to break this down:

A user has received a letter from their local council saying they need to pay their Council Tax. The letter informs them they can do it online. On their computer they search “pay my Council Tax”.

The Google search results for “pay my council tax”.

The first option is Pay your Council Tax. The user doesn't need to know the ins, outs or technicalities of Council Tax. They don't need to know the precise workings of local government and how the finances of Council Tax work. All they need to know, and most of the time all they want to know, is:

This is the user need. The Pay your Council Tax page does this simply and clearly. It's an easy user journey.

If you have been given lots of content to filter through, user stories (sometimes called user need statements) can be a really useful way of breaking it down. User stories help narrow down and identify the user need in a clear way. Just think:

As a... I need to... So I can... As a Council Tax payer, I need to pay my Council Tax, so I can pay for the services in my area and avoid the legal consequences of not paying.

Of course, there's lots of variations on this and they'll be more than one user story for any piece of content. However user stories, alongside user research, can help you understand what you need to write about.

Reading age

Not only is what you write an important aspect of plain English, but also how you write it.

As children we learn to read common words really quickly - around 5000 words. Then we start recognising the shape of the word, rather than reading it. This allows us to read faster. This process generally happens by the time we're 9 years old.

Those in the UK have an average reading age of 9 years old. Around 15%, or 5.1 million adults in England, can be described as “functionally illiterate”. This is why those writing for GOV.UK are asked to write for a 9 year old reading age.

Making your content accessible for all means your content will work for all. Therefore, making sure it's written in a way that all levels of literacy can understand is incredibly important. However, saying you're writing for a reading age of 9 years old is often met with skepticism and disregard by stakeholders — why would you write for a 9 year old? They don't care about paying Council Tax! Sarah Richards makes the important point that “writing for an age range isn't the same as writing to that age”. But everyone can benefit from simple, clear content.

In summary

There's so many aspects to plain English. It seems so simple but there's plenty to consider and work out in order to get it right. Once you understand why stakeholders think of it as “dumbing down” you can start bringing them on board. By using research and statistics as hard evidence you can start convincing them of the importance of clear writing.

In the majority of cases, the stakeholder isn't using the service but someone else is. Don't think stakeholder's knowledge isn't useful though, don't disregard it. But presenting the information the user needs is the content designer's expertise. Writing for a reading age of 9 years old is a great starting point and user stories can help break down the factual information.

You only need to provide content the user needs. They, more than likely, don't have the time or don't want to spend the effort reading through huge amounts of content. All they want to know is: what it is, how to do it and when they need to do it. Keeping it simple not only helps provide clarity it also saves time — something a lot of users don't have a lot of.

Making things as quick, easy and clear as possible for the user will go a long way in creating trust. And I think the fundamental point of content design is to develop trust with the user.


This article was originally published on Medium on 24 September 2017.