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!

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12 thoughts on “Speaking my language

  1. Spot on. Recently I had a look at the “report a pothole” functionality on half a dozen council sites and not one of them really made much sense. Obscure language was often a big part of the problem.

    How to fix it? While plain English training is certainly useful, often it’s hard for people to see the shortcomings in their own work. Therefore, all content should be reviewed for clarity by someone other than the author.

    A list of banned words or at the very least a style guide would be helpful. And you can use Google to find words within a site by searching for e.g. “carriageway site:croydon.gov.uk”.

    Something I picked up from looking at Liverpool City Council’s site was the way that the site is divided into three areas: Resident, Business and About the Council.

    The Resident area includes all the day-to-day transactions and information for residents. While a word like “carriageway” might be acceptable in a policy document in the About the Council section, it almost certainly shouldn’t appear in the Resident area. Segmenting the site is a useful way of understanding the audience you’re writing for.

  2. Agree – it’s the right words for the right audience in the right place without dumbing down and that is a skill.

    And I also agree about your other points. We have authors in services who we train in writing for the web and supply our style guide (and handy hints to) but all their content is still approved before publication. In theory this should make for a good set up but I always see room for improvement 😉

    Someone on Twitter made the point that it’s a fine line between plain English and dumbing down. Again, I agree with this but where the language is disrupting a visit and holding up the completion of a task then it needs to change. How do we know where the line it? Listen to feedback and testing – heuristic (jargon klaxon!) evaluations and of course user testing. But that’s another post for another day 🙂

  3. I don’t believe that you can dumb down basic transactions and information. Dumbing down generally means losing conceptual resolution in something that requires a more sophisticated treatment. But “you forgot to empty my bin” and “here’s a pothole — fix it” don’t require complex expression. I don’t think you can dumb down this stuff — it’s already conceptually as simple as can be.

    No-one ever complained that something was too simple.

    While everything should be as simple as possible but no more so, I think you can be confident in writing your basic transactions and your policy documents to different standards. Everyone with minimal literacy should be able to do the transactions. In practice, not everyone reads policy documents.

    You have a choice between mildly annoying some people who think that your basic info is a bit too primary school in its tone and literally excluding some people from being able to help themselves to essential council information and services. I don’t think that’s a tough choice.

  4. Great post and an important, and I think multi-layered, topic.

    I think you and I would both accept that people in local government are, broadly, speaking, not stupid and not out to confuse people. Yet they consistently do. My view is that the discussion often focuses on the wrong thing: the words. The best place to focus the discussion is on what’s going on in the head of the writer. Many years ago as a junior comms officer I was seconded to a team of engineers and planners to help them produce a transport plan in “plain English”. The first draft contained many priceless sentences including

    “The velocity of mobile public transport infrastructure is severely detrimented by vertical deflections in the carriageway surface”

    Which is a fascinating sentence, not least because it’s not even how engineers write to each other. I concluded that they were writing for me: concious of the fact that they were professionally qualified engineers with many years experience and I was a stripling in a shiny suit. Helping people to write well involves helping them to think clearly.

    The other thing that I became persuaded of working that closely with engineers is that the road is properly called the carriageway, the pavement is properly called the footway. My experience tells me that those terms are not widely understood by the general public. What would be more persuasive to the average engineer would be some data.

    It would be a service to comms officers everywhere to run a survey possibly asking people to mark on a drawing a number of features: “footway, carriageway, street-furniture” or “pavement, road, bench” and see which one people find easiest.

    Maybe someone has done this already?

  5. Thanks for that link Charlotte – had forgotten about that list!

    In the discussion about dumbing down I think I said something similar in that it should be written in similar language to how we speak. I’ve personally never been driving along and exclaimed: “Good golly (ahem) that was a mighty big carrigeway defect! I hope my suspension is intact.” But I might have made many a similar, more expletive ridden exclaimation about potholes.

    Getting rid of style guides is interesting. I’m going to muse on that…

  6. Ben – That would certainly be a good survey to run – possibly as part of user acceptance testing. It would be interesting to know whether there is any difference in understanding between different demographics or regions as well. I would think not, but like you I’m basing this on experience rather than data.

    It’s an interesting anecdote and I think links with what Adrian said in his earlier comment about people being too close to their own subject, and a comment I had on Twitter about the ‘highway’ ‘carriageway defect’ language giving the appearance of knowledge and authority.

    Lots of interesting things to think about – culture change, language, style guides, user experience design…..thanks everyone! Bound to be more posts on this 🙂

  7. As an engineer who doesn’t work in engineering now, Ben’s comments really made me laugh. I used to be responsible for public liability claims against my council, as the highway authority (see, I can’t help myself – “highway authority”). Yes it is important to use legally defined terms (footway, footpath, road pavement etc) in such cases, but generally we just don’t need to and I think it can make people feel they’re being preached at by a jumped up smart-arse.

    In a guerilla moment, I had the web people put “gritting” and “tips” in our A-Z. The relevant info was already online, but unless you knew to look for Winter Maintenance and Household Waste Recycling Centres, you were on a bit of a loser.

    I know people can feel defensive of their respective professions, but there’s just no point in putting out info that people don’t understand, or misunderstand. Actually, I’d go further than saying there’s no point; it’s counter-productive.

    And no, as Ben also said, engineers don’t talk to each other like that – most of the time anyway. Eeh, if I had a pound for every person I heard returning from a site visit 20 years ago pronouncing “that road’s sh*gged” I’d be… a bit richer 🙂

  8. Hi Sarah

    I’m right with you on this language thing. I know what I’d expect as a user, but I also know the internal issues we face in when trying to get others to see the same and change it.

    Blimey, total content review. I don’t envy you. Actually, maybe I do. It’s a great chance to make a change that will have a massive impact on how people will view a local government.

    I’ve recently started thinking about designing websites and having a go on a small scale. Tim Cooper got me into a great book called Designing for the Web and I eventually made another purchase from the same publishers on Information Architecture.


    Seriously, you need to read this book. It’s awesome and deals with the kind of stuff you’re on about and much more. It takes you though a step by step guide on how to plan your site for your customers.

    You may have less flexibility if you’re just doing a content review and not a complete redesign, but you could still use many of the techniques to get it as right as you can.

    Also, coming soon, Creating Web Content!


    Hopefully see you at MashCamp or arrange another Derbyshire SMC sometime soon?

  9. Wow – how rubbish am I? Sorry I only just got round to approving this comment!!!

    Really useful stuff and I’m definitely going to check those links out. We have some wiggle room to make a change to the ethos behind our site and so even if I can’t go all the way I’m sure there will be a load of useful information I can use.

    Hoping my dissertation will be over with by the end of summer so I’ll hopefully get back on with organising Derbyshire SMC again and yes, if MashCamp occurs in the meantime will see you there! 🙂

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