Andrea Blum, Director, Solution Strategy
In years past, I have participated with Healthwise colleagues in the development and selection of products we wanted to submit for a ClearMark Award—an award that celebrates excellence in plain language communication. We have received Clearmark awards many of the years that we submitted entries, but not every time. This year, we didn’t submit an entry because we didn’t have something significantly different to submit than we’ve done in previous years. But I was invited to participate as a judge on the panel evaluating Spanish-language entries.
We had a diverse group of entries to judge, including several health education products, something from the Social Security Administration, and even a mortgage loan application from Fannie Mae. It was a privilege to get an inside look at the great efforts so many organizations are making to better communicate with their audiences.
We had—appropriately—very clear judging instructions from the Center for Plain Language. When we think about excellence in plain language, the first thing that comes to mind is the words we use: common words, short sentences, active voice, no unnecessary details. But plain language—clear communication—is much more than that. At its core, plain language answers these 3 questions:
- Can the intended audience find the information they need?
- Can they understand it (by reading it once)?
- Can they use it?
Over the years, we Healthwisers have all internalized what it means to do the writing part of plain language well. Here are some more key requirements for excellence in plain language that I invite us to embrace as we design new products and new kinds of content.
- Understand the audience needs.
- Genuinely want the audience who uses the product to succeed.
- Be credible and sincere. (This also applies to software, documentation, and marketing.)
- Organize and label the content and features clearly.
- Present the content and features in a logical order that tells a story or helps the audience complete a task.
- Use typography, color, white space, and images that grab the audience’s attention and make the product easy to scan.
- Be sure the audience can tell at a glance what action to take.
- Use illustrations, graphics, or charts that relate to the content and support it, rather than using them just as decoration.
- Do user testing with the target audience at all levels of development, and incorporate learnings in development efforts. (I am delighted that we are doing so much of this now!)
- And my favorite, quoting directly from the criteria from the Center for Plain Language, because it was a revelation to me and it applies to all of us no matter our role: “Will the product help the authoring organization achieve its business goals (for example, increased customer self-service, enhanced mission, better consumer decisions, positive impact on targeted consumers)?”
A score of “excellent” is reserved for a product that helped the judges learn something new and inspiring about writing, information design, or user testing, and that caused the judges to talk about it with colleagues. I find it fitting that the winning product in the Spanish-language category is a simple, creative, user-validated print tool to help people with low and very low health literacy skills make the most of a doctor’s visit.
About the Author
Andrea Blum has worked for more than 25 years at the nonprofit Healthwise in various roles to help people make better health decisions, including Director of Print Services and Translation Services. She is currently a director with the product strategy and experience team, working on the next generation of health education and patient engagement products.