Tag Archives: plain language

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.


Procedures: how to write for business benefit

Most businesses define work activities in a written procedure. (If your business doesn’t, it really should.) Procedures, sometimes called Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), work instructions or safe work method statements, are the basis for a well controlled business.

But how do you write a procedure well? What makes a good SOP? You could mindlessly follow a template someone else has developed, or you could think about what you want to achieve, what would work best for your business. Some templates can be helpful, but they may not be best for your organisation. See some examples.

The elements of good work procedures

A purpose statement and a link to overall process

Workers need to know how the activity they perform fits into the big picture; how it contributes to the overall process and the purpose of the organisation.You could do this with a context statement, or locating the activity in a process map. Also give a thoughtful title to the procedure.

When working in the road surfacing industry, we changed a procedure title from ‘Drive the broom tractor’ to ‘Prepare the surface’. This had an immediate impact on how workers viewed the activity and lifted the self esteem of the broom driver.

Performance standards

Procedures should do more than merely provide a list of tasks to perform. They should include information about how to assess the quality of those tasks. Workers and supervisors then have some objective measures to judge performance.

The standards could be related to quality, performance or safety.

Grouped into sensible work chunks

Chunking work into steps and sub-steps provides helpful structure for workers. It avoids a long list of tasks, and fits well with the way workers think about the job.

For example, the work chunk ‘Find outstanding invoices’ could have sub-steps like Find the file, Search invoices by date range, Print report.

‘Thinking’ and ‘Doing’ sections

“Work is the exercise of discretion within boundaries.”
John Ralph, former CEO of CRA.

Procedures, SOPs, define the boundaries. They are the things workers must do. But to better engage workers, we want them thinking about their work too. That’s good for them and good for the business. So we might want to direct thinking about productivity, safety or environmental matters.

For example, include thinking prompts in the procedure like: ‘How could we reduce the paperwork?’ ‘Residents may be moving in and out of driveways as you inspect the footpath – take care.’

Standard resources

Include the equipment needed for the task, including safety related equipment. Describe the skills and competencies required. It may be appropriate to include the standard time taken for the task.

All this information allows you to cost the procedure and measure the impact of improvements and changes to business practice. For example, we discovered it takes 10 minutes to process and record payments into a law firm’s trust fund. If the firm offers clients a payment plan, increasing the number of payments, they may significantly increase their back office costs.

Plain language

All documents should be written in plain language.

When procedures are written plainly, workers can understand them quickly and implement them. If they are written in a style that workers find difficult, they may be confused and do the wrong thing, or waste time asking for clarification, or totally ignore the procedures and do what they think is best.

You can prove procedures, and all documents, have been written plainly with PlainLanguagePro certification.


You’ve written it with care, but will it be read, understood and acted on?

User testing is a must to increase the chance that a document is read, understood and acted on. (A document could be a printed process, fact sheet or report, or it could be web text.)

Effective business documents have an impact on the thinking, attitudes or behaviour of readers. If they don’t, the investment in researching, writing and reviewing is all wasted. Writing with care is vital; but care in crafting the document doesn’t guarantee success. Even well organised, plainly written documents can fail to achieve their purpose.

Testing documents with users before they are released is the best way to improve the likelihood of success. And it’s not difficult or expensive.

There are multiple ways to test a document, but one of the simplest is to design a set of questions to be used in a structured interview. Give the test subject the document or website to read. Then, ask them questions exploring what they understand and what they would do next.

You can get helpful insights with just a handful of tests.

Testing with real users, or people who represent real users, is far more powerful than passing the text around the office for your colleagues to review. Only real users have the perspectives and the constraints needed for a valid test.

User testing is required for a document to display the PlainLanguagePro GOLD trademark.

There is never enough time or money to do it right, but there is always enough time and money to do it again.



Superannuation PDS readability

The superannuation industry is in the news again today; described as an “unlucky lottery”.
Among other issues, poor information is still a problem – ” They’re bamboozled by poor disclosure …”
I thought I’d have a look at how easy it is to read some Product Disclosure Documents. I’ve looked at two dimensions across 10 popular funds.

1. Likely reading time

People are less likely to read longer documents. We all prefer to read short documents than long ones – we want information fast.

2. Readability

People need easy to read text to help them understand complex ideas. Readability indices are one way to measure how easy it is to read and understand text.
All these indices are higher than the Australian Government’s recommendation of between 3 & 4. link. My view is aiming at about 7 – 8 is OK for this type of content.

Why readability matters

The PDS is a functional document. People are supposed to use these to decide whether the fund is a right fit for them. Of course they need to read and understand the information in the PDS to be able to make this decision. And this is an important decision that can have impacts over a lifetime.
Many application forms ask potential members to declare that they have read and understood the PDS. A lengthy or difficult to read document discourages reading. It may encourage people to make a false declaration – to tick the box without reading or understanding.
And difficult to read documents are risky for funds too. The focus is shifting from ‘did you read the document’ (aimed at the reader) to ‘is the document readable’ (aimed at the writer).

Be careful with readability tools.

The readability tests I’ve used are mechanical tests that look at word and sentence complexity. They cannot be relied on by themselves, but a high grade index does indicate the text could be simpler.(The grade number refers to US school grade)
These tools do not consider document structure, meaning and the usefulness of content. It is possible to write highly readable rubbish.

The tests in detail

1. Reading time
I divided the total word count by 200. The avaerage reader reads at about 200 – 220 words per minute.
2. Readability
I used computerised versions of
  • Flesch Kincaid Grade Level
  • Gunning Fog Score
  • Coleman Liau Index
  • SMOG Index
  • Automated Readability
  • Index Spache Readability Score
  • Dale-Chall Readability Score

and calculated the aritmetic mean.

Documents were sourced on 29 May 2018 from:
Hostplus https://hostplus.com.au/financial-services-guide
Australian Super https://www.australiansuper.com/tools-and-advice/learn/product-disclosure-statements
Intrust Super http://www.intrustsuper.com.au/wp-content/uploads/Core-PDS.pdf
CareSuper https://www.caresuper.com.au/super/forms-publications/pds
Cbus https://www.cbussuper.com.au/content/dam/cbus/files/forms-publications/general-information/Cbus-Industry-Super-PDS.pdf
BUSSQ https://www.bussq.com.au/disclosure
ANZ Smart Choice https://www.wealth.anz.com/content/dam/anzwealth/pdfs/superannuation/Smart-Choice-Super-Pension-PDS.pdf
Virgin Money Super https://virginmoney.com.au/content/dam/virginmoney/vma-downloads/superannuation/Virgin-Money-Super-Product-Disclosure-Statement.pdf
AMP MY North https://www.amp.com.au/content/dam/product/mynorth/MyNorth_SuperPension_PDS.pdf
ING Living Super https://www.ing.com.au/pdf/ING_DIRECT_Living_Super_PDS.pdf

Why I am a plain language zealot

All business and government documents should be written in plain language. These are ‘functional documents’; people are expected to use these documents (information products) to do something.

Writing in plain language is important because:

Plain language builds a more just society

Writing plainly means more people will be able to read and understand your message.

If our audiences cannot follow legal documents, information leaflets or letters, there is the risk of their breaking the law, or failing to do what is expected of them or receiving what is rightfully theirs.” (Tasmanian Government)

Choosing not to write plainly can introduce social disadvantage. Excluding people from being able to easily understand contracts, laws and other information limits their choices. They can’t fully participate in society.

Plain language displays clear thinking

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” (attributed to Albert Einstein) No matter who said it, the idea is helpful.

When you have a deep understanding of an idea, you can find words, metaphors and images that help other people understand it too. You can explain the idea simply and with precision. If you only have a superficial understanding, you are likely to express the idea vaguely. It is unlikely to be written plainly.

If people understand more of what you’re saying, they will likely feel that you make sense.(Hoa Loranger)

Plain language aids effectiveness and efficiency

Business and government documents need to be both effective (achieve purpose) and efficient (read and understood quickly). Writing in plain language helps achieve both goals.

Complex, technical or pompous writing does not convey ideas quickly – readers have to battle to make sense of what is written. Writing plainly means using words and structures that your audience can quickly understand. (Knowing your audience is vital – when writing for technical readers you may use terms that lay people would call jargon.)

Writing plainly using familiar words and simple structures is not dumbing down. It helps less able readers to understand, and helps more able readers to read faster.


Claiming something is written plainly does not make it so

I came across this sentence recently:

The text provides, in plain English, an overview of what is necessary to give effect to a valid advanced care directive, and through illustrative and contemporary examples, enhances our understanding of the importance of “planning ahead”.

I don’t think many plain language professionals would say this is plainly written, despite the claim. When you have written plainly, you do not need to tell people you have done so – it will be obvious to your readers. They will be engaging with your ideas, not your writing. (reminds me of one of my other guiding principles: Never trust anyone who has to say “Trust me”.)

Some particular problems:

  • ‘to give effect to’: This is an uncommon and somewhat pretentious phrase, likely to put many readers off. Its use is unclear – it has the immediate sense of ‘how to write an advanced care directive’, but the literal meaning is ‘when your advanced care directive becomes operational’.
  • ‘an overview of what is necessary’: Too wordy.
  • ‘enhances our understanding of the importance of’: Too wordy.
  • ‘illustrative and contemporary’: Big words where small ones will do.
  • Many ideas in a sentence that is too long. As a rule of thumb: one point, one sentence.

A possible rewrite:

This booklet explains how to make an advanced care directive. The examples show how planning ahead is very important.

Can you provide a better rewrite? I’ll leave this post open for comments for a while.