Updated: Aug 1
An elderly neighbor recently asked me for advice on a letter she had received about her health insurance. She couldn’t understand what she had paid, what the insurance company had paid, or what needed to happen next. She was also concerned – fearing she may be liable for a payment she needed to make.
We went over the (very confusing) letter together, and I told her that she was fine. It didn’t appear she owed anything further and, if she did, they would likely send her another, equally confusing letter. We had a laugh, but then she suddenly became quite serious.
“You know, Barbra, I guess I’m not very smart. I couldn't even understand this simple letter.”
I assured her that she was, in fact, quite smart. The letter was the problem, not her. However, those words continued to echo in my head:
“I guess I’m not very smart.”
That’s the power of bad information: It can make wise and well-intentioned people feel “not very smart.”
The letter she got was not simple; it was actually quite cognitively complex. The letter:
didn’t explain the context
was not clear on the next steps
had no clear call to action
asked the reader to understand numbers out of a clear sequence
asked the reader to assess payments made by the insurance company and by the individual
referenced a “PCP” instead of simply saying “doctor.”
It was bad information.
Bad information is a nuisance, but it’s more than that. It’s time consuming. It’s inefficient. It’s a barrier to people getting appropriate benefits. It makes busy people work harder, and feel worse in the process.
So, what is good information?
At the Center for Plain Language, we use the following definition:
A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
Let’s break this down a bit.
Use effective wording, structure, and design
Often, people equate clarity with simple words. But, simple words are meaningless if they are structured poorly and come packaged in a terrible design. In fact, I could give you a document written in the simplest prose possible and still confound you with a design that doesn’t emphasize or organize the right information properly. How a document is written, structured, and designed all must work together to help a person read and navigate it easily.
Help readers find what they need
If a reader can’t find the most important information, then the document has failed. My neighbor’s letter (like the page on the left in the graphic below) had several dense paragraphs of text as well as a table with payments. It was hard to determine what was relevant and what was informational. The letter also didn’t use headings or graphic design to create a visual hierarchy (letter on the right) and guide the reader to what she needed.
Visual hierarchy makes dense text easier
Visual hierarchy works because it helps the reader follow the information and know where to look. Even without reading any words, you can see when visual hierarchy is present.
It helps people navigate information and reduces the chance they will be overwhelmed by text.
Help readers understand what they find
Good information “does the work for the reader.” When the wording, structure, and design are done well, the reader doesn’t have to work as hard to understand. We vastly overestimate the average level of literacy in the U.S. And, if you don’t believe me, check out recent survey results.
We can help those with lower literacy by using shorter sentences, active voice, and familiar words. My neighbor’s letter used none of these. The sentences were long and bureaucratic; it used passive voice instead of active voice; and, it relied on undefined acronyms like PCP, instead of using familiar words like “doctor” or “healthcare provider.”
Help readers use the information
No one reads functional documents – like health insurance letters – for pleasure. We read them because we need to know what to do next. Information is not helpful if a reader can’t use it to take appropriate actions. The biggest problem with my neighbor’s letter was that, even after reading it several times, she simply didn’t know what she had to do. People assume that when they get a letter, they must act in response. I advise my clients who write such letters to state, early on, what action you want the reader to take.
And this advice goes for all information – not just letters. It can be emails, forms, or websites. Figure out what you want readers to do with the information and make those actions clear to them.
Fix your bad information!
Bad information is bad business. It erodes customer trust, and it gives them the impression that they are “just not that smart.”
And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider this: it’s also incredibly inefficient. When people don’t understand what to do, it requires an organization to send more letters, take more phone calls, and have more customer engagements. It wastes everyone’s time and money.
So, work on the core information. Work on the wording, structure, and design. And, most importantly: do the work for your customer so that they can understand what you say and feel good in the process.
Now that’s being smart.
About the Author
Barbra Kingsley, Ph.D., President of Kingsley-Kleimann Group, has 25 years of experience managing high-impact communication projects to create clear, usable information. She is an information design and plain language expert with a deep understanding of how individuals, particularly vulnerable populations, use print and online information. Barbra also works nationally and internationally to promote the use of plain language. As Chair of the Center for Plain Language, she oversees both the Annual Federal Report Card, which rates federal agency compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, and the Annual ClearMark Awards, which celebrates the best in North American plain language.