Archive for the ‘literacy’ Category

Plain Writing = better ROI – Internationally

July 5, 2011 Leave a comment

My recent trip to the Plain 2011 conference in Stockholm, Sweden was very worthwhile. And that’s saying a lot – as I covered my costs for this three day international conference.  I attended because the USA now has a Plain Writing Act which requires all federal agencies’ public facing published content, especially online, to be written in Plain Language as of October 2011.  I wanted to learn what other countries have learned from their experience with Plain Writing laws. The sessions I enjoyed the most were:

Annette Cheek (USA),, presentation – Google docs

Annette gave an insightful and amusing history of Plain Language and an overview of how a small group of people decided to make a federal law and how they did it. That alone was worth the trip across the Atlantic. I asked how will agencies be measured if their websites are written in Plain Language? Maybe the ACSI survey could ask users to rate the simplicity of the writing? Maybe it will 🙂

Helena Haapio (Finland) – Communicating Contracts – when text alone is not enough.

Because so many of my agency’s staff are contracting officers, I was eager to learn more. Helen’s handout had many tips on using tables, illustrations, and examples of succinct and simply written phrases. She also talked about the well known example of The Comma That Costs 1 Million Dollars (Canadian).  Rogers Communications and Aliant had a contract dispute over a contract containing  a sentence with 45 words, with a comma that a court interpreted as meaning that Aliant could renegotiate it’s five year contract after only one year.   My contracting officer coworkers have found it useful and intesting.

Thomas Mueller (Germany),  of Siegel + Gale, the cost of complexity

This presentation stated that brands who provide customers with simple communications and processes have great ROI.  Also available is the 2010 Global Brand Simplicity Index: United States.  An alternative title could be – if you aren’t writing in plain language and providing excellent usability to your customers you could be leaving money on the table. The lowest ranking brands for simplicity were utilities and financial institutions. If you invested your own money in companies rated highest in providing simplicity in their communications and interactions, your investment would outperform all others. Siegel+Gale has a blog with entries on simplicity – worth reading.

Sue Owen (Australia) , Using plain language in emergency warnings.

Sue spoke of how – tragically – many people did not understand that they should evacuate due to bushfires and floods in the Victoria province and subsequently lost their lives. A hearing determined that the warnings were written in dense, unclear, and ambiguous terms. Afterwards new guidance was issued requiring disaster warnings issued in Victoria to use clear language, avoid euphemisms, and contain specific information in relation to:
• the severity, location, predicted direction and likely time of impact of bushfires on specific communities and locations; and
• the predicted severity of impact of the bushfire and whether a specific fire poses a threat to human life.

The warnings must address and answer these questions:

  • where is the threat?
  • when will it be here?
  • how bad will it be?
  • what they can/should do

Cathy Baskerfield (Australia) – A synopsis of research when writing for people with limited literacy skills. Her presentation covered research on how to better reach the population with low literacy.  Much of any country in the world has at least 20% of its population coping with low literacy (immigrants, disabled, the elderly, indigeneous) . She postulates that Plain Language and information design is inherently interdisciplinary. Slides 26 – 33 show that combining good graphics with text:

• Can improve comprehension
• Support relationship among ideas
• Show spatial relationship
• Change adherence to information, for example, taking prescription tablets


Give great web

March 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Your web page is the front door to the public and to your customers. It’s the first thing that most people see. Your web pages creates impressions and brands your agency. I agree with Candi Harrison that we must strive to create a positive image and provide great customer service.

To create a powerful, positive brand as a caring, proactive customer oriented agency we must create government web pages that follow these rules:

1. Audience – specify your audience – in the first sentence if possible:
a. Citizens/Industry/Agencies/Contracting Officers/Attorneys/Industry can find . . .
b. If its unclear – use “Are you looking for . . . ?”

Boring pages start with xxx agency provides aaaa services to bbbb. Defining your audience puts your customers first – where they belong.

2. Task – identify the tasks someone can complete. Make easy for your users to register for an event, sign up for a newsletter, buy your products/services, contact you, or fill out a form. Easy means just that – a user unfamiliar with your page should be able to figure out who its for and what they can do on your page within ten seconds. Usability testing is available from GSA’s First Fridays. Also refer to for guidelines your pages should follow.

3. Readability – your pages should be readable at the 8th grade level – use the SMOG index to check them. Do this now as all federal web pages will have to be written in Plain Language by Oct 2011.

4. Brevity – are your web pages concise? Short so users don’t have to scroll? Be considerate of your busy user’s time.

5. Current – are your web pages up to date? Check to be sure that announcements within news releases, publications, powerpoint presentations, speeches and/or blog posts are also included on your web pages. This is also an OMB requirement.

If your web pages meet all of the above – congratulations! If not, don’t worry about it – do something about it. Take steps to address these problems. Most web pages are constantly evolving. Call it continuous improvement, agile, six sigma, or whatever you like – but do keep working on your web pages to ensure that your customers get the very best that your agency and you can give.

And yes – federal web policies, best practices and guidelines – apply to all web pages including yours. Everyone appreciates an easy to read page. No one has ever read a web page that gave guidance on an important issue and thought – “Wow, I wish that was harder and more complicated.”

We all search for information, stumble upon pages and need to quickly decide if we are following the right information path. Help your customers, and help your agency make a better impression on how well it delivers great customer service.

GMU English Undergraduate Students – Presentation

March 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Good Morning! Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

A little about me: Joy Gatewood Fulton

Questions for you: How many of you are on
Have a blog?
Have commented on a blog?

Futures for English Undergraduates

Library of Congress: Electronic Research Products Editor, Technical Writer-Editor search for Writer-DC, search for Editor-DC, New Media – Communications & Outreach Specialist

Skills for now and the future –Always be learning

Networking: DC Web Women, LinkedIn, Facebook – groups that hold meetings, such as:

Half of your users can’t read your website

May 24, 2007 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking lately about usability and the web.

Did you know that 50% of Americans read at an eighth-grade level? And that most websites are written at a tenth-grade level?

Can you imagine 50% of the users of your website having difficulty understanding it?

Dr. Kathryn Summers, University of Baltimore and co-author of Creating Websites That Work, presented compelling evidence that most websites are too difficult for half of  their visitors to read and use.

Dr. Summers presented compelling evidence about reading behaviors of lower literacy users. Truthfully, I was not sure how useful this information would be, and was thinking of attending a different seminar. This seminar was one of the most factual and compelling that I have seen.

Just think of half your audience being unfamiliar with your website and how to use it! These users need very simple instructions. They can be really confused by forms, especially forms that are rejected without clear instructions as to why. They find acronyms difficult to understand and even if they were defined once in the page, may not remember that first reference.

Dr. Summers shared her hands-on analysis of data from eye tracking sessions, research on the latest industry best practices, and experience of developing numerous web design prototypes at the 2007 Government Web Managers One-Day Workshop. That presentation is not online, but a 2005 presentation, Reading and Navigational Strategies of Web Users with Lower Literacy Skills, is well worth your time.

Categories: literacy, usability