Tag Archives: Document testing

Due diligence in public documents – test before publishing

Due diligence: action that is considered reasonable for people to be expected to take in order to keep themselves or others and their property safe. (Cambridge English Dictionary – my emphasis)

Businesses and government agencies write public documents to inform people about products, services, obligations and opportunities. People may be harmed if they do not fully understand fact sheets, letters, contracts, websites and the like. They may not receive the product or service they expect, they may act in a damaging way, or they miss out on something due to them.

The impact of misunderstanding may be serious or trivial. If the document is about a work process, misunderstanding may result in death or injury. If it is about a financial product, misunderstanding may lead to poverty and disadvantage.

The development process for most public documents is something like

  1. a junior person writes a first draft
  2. a manager reviews and edits the draft
  3. the marketing people provide input
  4. the legal department review, to make sure there is no risk to the organisation
  5. final graphic design and publish.

Organisations may perform these steps with skill and care, but that is not due diligence. It is merely people internal to the organisation talking to each other about the document. They make untested assumptions about how the target audience will understand and react to the document.

Document testing is both reasonable and necessary for public documents

Testing helps keep other people safe. Document testing checks the information can be read, understood and acted on before it is published.

Choosing not to test is reckless.Reckless writing: not caring about readers Simply passing a document around the organisation and throwing it out to the public is not reasonable or responsible. We would never allow a physical product to enter the public arena that way – why do we tolerate it with information products?

Document testing is not difficult, expensive or time consuming. You can find most usability problems by testing with just a handful of potential users.

The PlainLanguagePro GOLD certification trademark requires writers to test documents before publishing. It is a sound way to prove you have used due diligence in your documentation project.PlainLanguagePro GOLD certified guarantees usable text.


The risk of writing functional documents and web content

A functional document (including web content) is a document that readers have to do something with. Functional documents include contracts, reports, advice, disclosures, fact sheets, policies, procedures, terms and conditions, letters. Most documents written by businesses and government agencies are functional documents.

Whenever you write a functional document you are taking on risk.

Whenever you write a document that people have to rely on in some way, there is a risk they may not understand, or may not get the full picture, and so act in a detrimental way.

A fundamental principle of plain language is that the writer takes prime responsibility for the communication. You can’t blame the reader if they don’t get it. You may not be able to blame the reader even if they don’t read the document. The question is shifting from “Did you read the document?”, aimed at the reader, to “Is the document readable?”, aimed at the writer.

We generally consider risk by thinking about likelihood and consequence; thinking about the likelihood a reader may misunderstand your document, or not read all of it; thinking about the consequence of a reader acting on missing or confused information.

You can probably predict likely consequences. For many documents, risk will be low because the consequences of misunderstanding are not that bad.

But you can only know about likelihood by testing the document. You can only appreciate how people are likely to read and understand your document when you run it past a sample of real users and observe their reactions and thoughts.

You can prove you have taken document risk seriously by having your document certified.