Keep It Simple, Sweetheart

 Humans should write for humans

One of the most important aspects of technical communication is clarity, or, more specifically , “Will my audience understand what I’m saying here?” We serve as a translation service between our audiences and the experts, and we should always ensure that the audience can understand what the experts are trying to tell them. As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power,” and being able to understand the information in technical documents increases the reader’s ability to remember and apply knowledge in later situations. To that end, there is much that we can and should do to make sure the gap between the expert’s and the audience’s knowledge  is bridged. One major way is through the use of plain language communication. But is plain language alone enough to ensure complete comprehension?

In their critical discourse study of adjustable-rate mortgage loans, Natasha Jones and Miriam Williams discovered that, while the authors did attempt  to use plain language, the loan agreements  were still difficult to comprehend due to the lack of  information regarding the laws or documents required  for a loan along with the necessary definitions for the jargon used in the loan documents. This also included design flaws such as a typeface that was so small that neither researcher (both of whom had 20/20 vision) could read the text without a magnifying glass. In short, the ARM documents were not written with the requirements of a semi- or non-technical audience in mind and were therefore discriminatory. For example, anyone reading these ARM documents would need access to the Wall Street Journal so they could read its index and calculate special interest rates. While this was specified in the documents, many African American families did not have access to the Wall Street Journal either physically or online; therefore, these ARM documents were discriminatory.

As technical communicators, we need to remember that plain language alone isn’t enough to ensure comprehension. If, for example, we’re writing a help page for troubleshooting a cell phone that’s directed at people older than 65, we have to consider what our audience knows and build the document accordingly. Also, an audience feels much more comfortable if they fully understand not only what a document is trying to do or say, but also why it’s being done or said that way. In the words of Dr. Jones and Dr. Williams, “Adopting a human-centered design approach for designing plain-language documents and implementing plain-language guidelines would require inclusive and collaborative participation from readers of documents like the ARM disclosure statements.” Being involved in the process of document design also helps build trust between an author and their audience and helps the document feel a little more human. Finally, design documents with the knowledge that a human is going to be reading them, not a user. If you’re designing for a senior audience, make the font larger, include in-text citations that don’t require hovering the mouse, and keep the tone friendly. 


The Social Justice Impact of Plain Language: A Critical Approach to Plain-Language Analysis, by Natasha Jones and Miriam Williams

Viewpoint Written by Elena Ofenstein, Texas State University

Edited by Rachel Spradling, Texas State University

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