Words are very much on my mind at the moment.
I’m at a point with my dissertation research where I am collating and writing up the findings of a set of evaluations on the top ten tasks on a council’s website. Alongside this I’m about a month away from the end of my maternity leave and a return to full time work and I know when I do one of the biggest jobs is a review of content on the main site.
These two things (plus my own adventures into trying to access council services online as Citizen Sarah) have got me thinking afresh about the language used online, particularly on local government websites.
Although plain English and a ban on jargon is widely preached it seems that it is more rarely put into practice and that there is still a big proportion of information which is unfriendly, off putting and in some cases just unreadable.
Before hands fly up about how hard it is to simplify the archaic language a lot of local gov is still steeped in; I know. I really do. But however hard it is to convince services to drop the legalese, jargon and triple-syllable multi-sentence paragraphs we have to try. Here’s why.
This morning on Twitter, someone in my stream asked about reporting a pothole on a council site (not the site of the council I work for!). She’d found the form to make the report but was them flummoxed by the choices, all because of the language used.
The page itself is called Report a Fault on the Highway. I know highway is the correct term within local gov but is it everyday language? I’d argue not. You don’t just ‘pop down the highway to the shop’ you go down the road. You don’t say you were ‘driving along the highway’ you say road. It’s overly formal and becomes just jargon. Probably most people can have a guess but why should they sit thinking of synonyms when the common word could be used?
The choice she was looking for on the form? She was looking for pothole, but was presented with ‘carriageway defect’. Outside of local government I’d say this is a pretty meaningless phrase and again just makes it harder for someone to do what they want to do.
(There does seem to be another problem on this particular site that increased traffic causes the form to fall over and fail to load with no error message. Another couple of technical and usability issues but not for this post.)
How could it improve? Well, in my opinion calling the page ‘report a road fault’ and changing the option to ‘pothole’ would be a good start. A simple thing that would make a big difference to the user’s experience and their perception of the council.
As the rallying cry of ‘digital by default’ begins to sound across local government it’s time to revisit the core of a council site; the content. Start with the right words and the rest will follow.
I’ll probably write more about language / content / words in the next few weeks while I’m still knee deep in the dissertation and getting back on the work pony!