In so many areas of our lives, things are way too complicated. Applying for a job? Awesome, if you have 45 minutes to fill out a form with the exact same information from the resume you already uploaded. Buying a car? It’s a cinch, as long as you’ve got an afternoon to spend reading the fine print. Going to the doctor? It’s easy, once you’ve filled out these ten new patient forms.
That’s why we advocate for plain language. Life is hard enough without having to wade through complex terminology. And that’s why more companies are fighting the good fight to keep it simple when they speak to their customers.
There’s just one problem. We, as citizens of this way-too-complicated world, are conditioned to adapt to confusion. We’ve become accustomed to jargon-y terms. We don’t even blink when acronyms come flying at us. And we’re not going to un-learn this complex language overnight.
Old habits die hard
This can pose a unique challenge. Sometimes the language we want to simplify includes the very words and terms our customers are used to looking for.
I spend a lot of time collecting and analyzing on-site and inbound search data. And this research has helped me understand a few key things about how web users look for information:
- Many users still navigate through sites to complete their tasks. But more and more are turning to search boxes (on Google and on our sites), too.
- Users grow accustomed to the labels and language we use.
- It’s important to account for the old language when we introduce the new. If we don’t, we run the risk of making it much harder for our users to find.
In other words: Old habits die hard. And sometimes, to make sure our content is truly easy for users to find and understand, we can’t just erase the not-so-plain language we’ve used in the past.
Build a bridge
If the idea of keeping confusing terms on your site makes you feel like you’ve taken a detour to Conundrumville, you’re not alone. But there’s a way for us to move toward plain language without leaving our users behind:
- Make use of analytics and insights: listening posts, customer feedback forms, and on-site and inbound search data. This information is invaluable. It shows us what words our users associate with the topics we’re talking about.
- The last thing we want to do in our quest for plain language is make our users to reach a dead end. If they’ve been conditioned to look for a term, and we change it without warning, they may get confused. This is true even if the new label or language seems to be simpler and easier to understand.
- If your insights tell you that your audience is still stuck on terms you want to scrub, don’t get rid of them overnight.
- Build a bridge between old and new terms. Update the content on your site so that it introduces your new plain language in the context of the old:
- “We’ve renamed RepTarp – it’s now Snake Net. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is how well it keeps snakes out of your house.”
- “Your drug list, previously known as a formulary, is available online. Choose the Drug List tab when you log in to your account.”
- “The fork (aka dinglehopper) is an essential utensil when dinnertime rolls around.”
Plain language isn’t only about using simpler words
We need to help users un-learn the complicated terms they’ve digested over the years. It’s not always easy. And it doesn’t happen overnight.
But really, that’s what plain language is all about. It’s listening to users. It’s speaking their lingo. And it’s making it as easy as possible for them to find the answers they need.
About the author: Katherine Webb is an SEO specialist living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She’s been creating easy-to-use content for the web for more than ten years. She’s an SEO specialist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and is a contributing writer and editor for Cheat Sheet and BrightWall/DarkRoom. She loves plain language, and helping people find it, as much as she loves movies (and that’s a lot).