Health Design Challenge Could Help VA to Make the Grade on Plain Language

Nightingale Wins Overall Design

The US Government recently invited designers and developers to redesign the patient health record. The goal of the Health Design Challenge was to improve the presentation and usability of the record currently used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other groups. Over 230 entries were submitted. The winning entries used dynamic content, informative graphics and, of course, plain language.

The VA health record definitely needs a makeover. It’s a plain text file that provides a laundry list of the patient’s medical data. But it doesn’t explain why the patient needs to take certain medications or what their lab results mean. And it doesn’t provide additional information that would help the patient, caregiver or doctor manage the patient’s health.

How did the winning entries use plain language to make the health record more effective? They eliminated jargon, used simple English and wrote short sentences. The first place winner for best overall design, Nightingale by gravitytank, made the content understandable and kept it simple. As they stated on their entry: “Each test and result is explained in plain English.” All of the winning entries provided clear instructions that a patient or caregiver can easily understand and follow.

The new patient health record will combine elements of several of the entries. This gives the VA a chance to improve their “plain language” grade. (The Department received an F on the first Plain Writing Act report card released by the Center for Plain Language.) Will the new health record designs with their focus on plain language help them the VA get a passing grade? We certainly hope so.

You can view the winning entries at Health Design Challenge.

By Ellen Buttolph

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Promoting Plain Language at CDC – Checklist and Messaging

Our colleague, Cynthia Baur, plain language lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just posted some new tools you might find useful.  They can help large, complex organizations like government agencies make plain language everyday practice.

We all know how easy it is for broadcast emails, memos and other notices to get lost in the workday flow of information. (more…)

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The cost of fine print? About $3K a year.

moneyIf you think America is shifting to a culture of transparency, unfortunately, you’re wrong: consumers are drowning in more fine print and byzantine disclosure language than ever before.  Bank contracts and product manuals commonly bloat to hundreds of pages, in type as small as 1/6 of an inch.

Who reads this stuff? Almost nobody. And as this news clip from a CBS affiliate in Alabama reveals, that costs the average household about $3,000 a year.

Lawyers argue that excessive language is necessary to “protect consumers.”  But until disclosures are presented in a form people actually read, they’re doing just the opposite: allowing organizations to bury unattractive terms in pages of jargon, while simultaneously shielding them from legal liability.

“Devil in the Details” by Shanisty Myers

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Say What? The CFPB Unravels Credit Card Agreements

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has now added credit card agreements to its list of consumer-centered communication. The Bureau is asking for public comments about their prototype at

Here’s an explanation of their new focus from Marla Blow, Acting Assistant Director, Card Markets, CFPB. (more…)

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Comment on Health Insurance Disclosure Forms

Please consider submitting comments by October 11, 2011 on a proposed federal rule which includes a new consumer-friendly health insurance disclosure form and a glossary for insurance companies to use.


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The National Dialogue on Improving Federal Websites

Join us in participating in an exciting initiative that starts Monday:

The National Dialogue on Improving Federal Websites

The Dialogue is a nationwide, two-week online conversation with web experts and the public to generate ideas for re-inventing how the federal government delivers information and services online.  It’s part of the larger .gov Reform Initiative launched earlier this summer by the White House and the U.S. General Services Administration. (more…)

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Experts Wanted to Comment on Models of Mortgage Disclosures

by Deborah S. Bosley

One of the most consumer-friendly outcomes of Dodd-Frank was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In addition to its mission to protect the financial interests of citizens, the CFPB also must create a new mortgage disclosure in plain language that combines two existing documents into one: the Truth in Lending disclosure and the Good Faith Estimate. Susan Kleimann (a member of the board of the Center for Plain Language) and the Kleimann Communication Group will create this new disclosure form. (more…)

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Seeking Comments on a New “Fast Track” Process for Usability Evaluations

Man reading at a computer

by Jean Fox, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Many federal agencies conduct usability evaluations to ensure that their products, websites, and documentation are easy to understand and use.  Under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (PRA), to work with more than nine people, the agency must get approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). (more…)

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Plain Language Bills Aid Democracy

The Center again applauds Representative Bruce Braley (IA), who recently sent a letter to Republican leaders encouraging a change to their proposed Rules of the House. Congressman Braley asked them to add a provision that would require Committees to post a Plain Language section-by-section summary of all bills on their public websites 72 hours before a bill is considered on the House Floor. (more…)

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Implementing the Plain Writing Act: Questions for the OMB

Businesswoman writing on a tablet-like screenAs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) writes the official guidance for implementing the Plain Writing Act,  we will track the progress and post updates as we learn about them.

Overall, the preliminary guidelines are an excellent start. The document is concise. clear, and covers most of the key issues of implementing the Act. But we also have some questions that we hope the OMB will address in the final version. (more…)

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Center for Plain Language (

Printed April 18, 2014


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