We welcome plain language’s recently proposed changes.1Clarity 79 2018 Many of you will know that I have been a long-standing persistent (and sometimes irritating) critic of routine plain language practice—search on our website for “plain language” and you will find many examples. I have seen many examples of routine plain language practice that have not led to significant improvements for the people who have to read documents—the many citizens and consumers who find public documents difficult to use, and who turn away from reading because they have a low expectation of their usability. Of the few people who undertake the reading task, many are still bewildered and disappointed by their own efforts. But they remain silent in the face of institutional power and their own sense of inadequacy.
The sad outcomes of these failed routine plain language practices go unnoticed by the writers. They don’t see the consequences. Meanwhile, commissioning organisations can tick the boxes for being ‘customer friendly’ and ‘complying with the regulations’ and are all too pleased to celebrate their achievements: token gestures of no substance.
But now there is reason for optimism, resulting from developments in the thinking of the plain language movement, foreshadowing new international standards to guide plain language practice. The standard of practice in plain language in the coming years might substantially transform practice into an evidence-based, professional discipline.
Central to this change is the recent thinking among plain language advocates to develop Public Standards for plain language practice, in collaboration with national and international standards organisations. Having been Chair of a national Standards Committee in Australia and Member of an international committee of the International Standards Organisation, I am well aware of the effort and rigour that goes into such work. I am also aware of the beneficial outcomes, both to the document producers and to the reading public.
In the case of plain language, I derive my enthusiasm for this venture by observing a convergence in thinking between communication and information design on the one hand and plain language advocates on the other.
In 1990, at a conference organised by CRI (then the Communication Research Institute of Australia, CRIA), I suggested a definition of information design:
Information design is about managing the relationship between people and information so that the information is accessible and usable by people. 2Sless, David. “What is Information Design?,” In Designing Information for People, edited by Robyn Penman and David Sless, 1–16. Canberra: Communication Research Press, 1992.
By the early 1990s we developed our first information design standards:
Every literate user of CMI
- should be able to find 90% of what they look for, and
- effectively use 90% of what they find.
90% x 90% = 81%
Minimum target in testing 81%. 3Sless, David and Rob Wiseman. Writing About Medicines for People: Usability Guidelines and Glossary for Consumer Product Information. Canberra: Department of Health and Human Services, 1994.
In 2007, I updated this definition to:
Information designers create and manage the relationship between people and information so that the information is accessible and usable by people, and they provide evidence that the information is accessible and usable to an agreed high standard.4https://communication.org.au/defining-information-design/(italics added)
Here is the recently agreed definition of plain language in Clarity:
A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
This definition derives from Ginny Redish and her work at the Document Design Center in Washington in the late 1970s—we all drew on it in our formative years. Small differences and emphases apart, there is a burgeoning convergence of thinking. Even testing is referred to throughout, though somewhat vaguely. Add to this the significant momentum—the Public Standards—which could lead to a welcome convergence of practice. All of which is a somewhat academic way of saying that we seem to be doing many of the same things and may benefit from exchanging and pooling experience.
This then is an invitation to future collaboration.