Early this summer, TIME.com asked the Center for Plain Language to evaluate some online privacy notices, using the types of assessment we use for our ClearMark awards and our Federal Plain Language Report Card. I took the lead on the project and learned some great lessons along the way. TIME.com published the article in August.
The Center evaluated online privacy notices for Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Lyft, Twitter, and Uber. We used two assessment methods to determine how easy or difficult the notices are to understand: an algorithm-based tool called Acrolynx, and human judges—all plain language experts. Using Acrolynx, we measured sentence length, words per sentence, use of complex versus simple words, active voice, and a variety of other factors. The judges looked at some of the same aspects, but also looked at style, organization and structure, audience needs, and other factors.
Former and current Center for Plain Language board members did most of the work. Kath Straub, Ph.D., of Usability.org, carried out the Acrolynx piece of our assessment. Kath uses the psychology of behavior to help clients better understand, motivate, and communicate with their customers.
Judges included Deborah Bosley, Ph.D., with The Plain Language Group. Deborah has a 20-year history in plain language, working with Fortune 100/500 companies, government, attorneys, and nonprofits. Meghan Codd Walker is a writer and content expert with Zuula Consulting. She works with a variety of businesses but specializes in the financial services industry. Jeff Greer is a digital content specialist with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He focuses on using plain language and simple interactions that help consumers make sense of health insurance.
The judges did not communicate during the judging, but they reached surprisingly similar conclusions about the policies.
Rankings aside, this project holds some great lessons for those who are willing to see them. Although there are probably more lessons, here are the ones that reached me.
First, people in the plain language community are incredibly generous with their time, talents, and resources. The experts went above and beyond the call of duty to help with this project. Their willingness to help merely confirmed what I’ve known for over a decade: the plain language community is committed to helping anyone and everyone communicate more clearly.
Second, being big doesn’t mean you always use your resources wisely. The project involved seven of the most successful companies on the Internet. They clearly have the resources to communicate clearly if that’s their goal. Most of them probably want to. But the more subtle takeaway is this: Lots of people think they know how to communicate clearly, but they don’t. The same companies that spend massive amounts of money hiring top-of-their-game programmers, accountants, PR firms, and myriad other experts may not yet understand that clear communication is a specialized field. Believing your people can write doesn’t mean they can, and it doesn’t mean your users will understand. Short sentences, active voice, and all of the other plain language guidelines can go a long way. But if you don’t have an expert—a true expert—helping you at least a little, you’re wasting your resources.
Third, whether you’re good or bad at this, you can improve. The real losers will rest on their laurels (“We were at the top of the list, so we’re fine”) or dig their heels in (“These judges know nothing about our company . . . or our efforts . . . or our users . . . or the law, or . . .” ). The real winners will embrace this incredibly valuable information and use it to improve the way they communicate with the people who are making their companies great: users. Surprisingly, only one company has reached out to the Center (so far) to learn more. Between the Center’s free resources and impressive list of consultants, anyone who wants to communicate clearly can do so.
The last lesson is, perhaps, the most important. The subtle undercurrent flowing through the judges’ comments (and evident in the public’s ongoing outcry for plain language) is this: companies that don’t use plain language don’t care about their customers, clients, readers, or users. Judges consistently commented that some policy language showed the companies’ respect and a desire for users to understand, while other language communicated disrespect, and even a deliberate desire that users not read the policies.
Plain language is a powerful communication tool, but content is just one part of the communication. The more subtle message behind a company’s language and document design is either, “We value you,” or “We just want your money.”
About the author: Julie Clement has been a law professor for the past 16 years, teaching legal research, writing, and drafting. She recently left legal education to pursue private consulting. Her firm, J Clement Communications, focuses on legal writing, legal drafting, and plain legal language.