Use our 5-step checklist…

Plain language writers communicate effectively because they understand who will (and will not) use the document or website they are writing. They create products that

  • speak clearly and directly to the target group
  • anticipate what readers already know and what they need to learn
  • present information logically
  • include content only if it is needed
  • help the reader move through the content efficiently and act on it confidently
  • create trust in the company or agency

A document, web site or other information is in plain language if the target audience can read it, understand what they read, and confidently act on it.

5 steps

Step 1. Identify and describe the target audience.

Define the target groups that will use the document or website
List and prioritize top tasks by audience group
List what people need or need to know to complete the task
List characteristics of the groups that should influence design (for example, age, computer experience…)

The audience definition works when you know who you are and are not designing for, what they want to do, and what they know and need to learn.

Step 2: Structure the content to guide the reader through it

Organize the content so that it flows logically
Break content into short sections that reflect natural stopping points
□ Write headings that help readers predict what is coming up

The structure works when readers can quickly and confidently find the information they are looking for.

Step 3: Write the content in plain language

Keep it short and to the point
Write short but logical sentences
Present important information first in each section, subsection, and paragraph
Include the details that help the reader complete the task
Leave out details that don’t help or may distract readers, even if they are interesting
Use transitions to connect ideas, sentences, paragraphs, or sections

Set a helpful tone
Use a conversational, rather than legal or bureaucratic tone

Pick the right words
Use strong verbs in the active voice
Use words the audience knows
Make titles or list elements parallel (for example, start each with a verb)
For websites: Match the link wording to landing page names

The language works when readers understand the words and grasp the intended message quickly and confidently.  

Step 4: Use information design to help readers see and understand

Use headers and sub-headers to organize the information
Use typography (font size, color, bold, etc) to guide the reader’s attention
Use whitespace to organize the information
Use images to make content easier to understand

The design works when users notice and use the signposts to move through the information efficiently.    

Step 5: Work with the target user groups to test the design and content

Test the design at multiple points 
Were audience needs, such as top tasks, prioritized based on user research?
 Did you test that the  navigation labels and information organization for predictability?
Did you test the content for readability and understandability?
Did you test the final product?

Use evidence-based testing strategies
Were the participants representative of the target groups?
Did you test your design and content with enough people?
How was understanding and ability to act measured?
Was there a before-and-after comparison to demonstrate improvement?

Check that the final product is useful and usable
Ask readers to describe who and what the document or site is intended for
Have them show you how they would find the information they want or need
Ask them to describe key concepts or processes in their own words
Observe whether target users can finish key tasks easily and confidently
Note where they stumble or misunderstand and rethink those parts of the site or document

The document or site works when target users can find what they need, understand what they find, and act on it confidently.