The case for clarity in digital content

“The Department of Obfuscation and Perplexity for Existential Youth (DOPEY) is pleased to advise preteen, teen and post-teen customers that the department’s headquarters will be open till 6pm on Saturdays, effectively immediately.” (32 words)

“Our head office opens until 6pm on Saturdays.” (8 words)

These 2 sentences say essentially the same thing, yet one has 75% less words.

Imagine the context for both being a few levels down in a website being viewed on a smartphone. The ‘DOPEY’ user knows whose site they’re on and what they’re attempting to do.

Whether they succeed or fail at completing their task is not the issue: The issue is about clear, simple and more humane communications being the default and enduring approach. And by any measure the second sentence clearly follows the path called ‘empathy’.

Because the data and behaviour tells us so

We know from multi-variant and user testing, as well as eye-tracking studies that people don’t need to read every word to understand what’s written or to progress through a site.

Online, where users want to complete their tasks as quickly as possible and with the least amount of angst, they rapidly skim/scan titles, subheadings and lead sentences of paragraphs anticipating words and meaning in a quest to get their task done.

And they can best achieve this quest more often than not when content is concise, full of clarity and brimming with relevance. How do we achieve this?

Part of the solution is to write conversationally

While content is likely being read by many people at the same time, craft it with empathy as though you’re talking one-on-one with a human but with the credibility that only a government source can convey.

However, this ‘credibility’ in language and tone must be earned. Everyday words help; they work better than long and more formal phrases. So too do shorter sentences in the active voice because the meaning is generally more evident and transparent upfront.

In summary, credible, engaging digital content must strive to be:

  • clear and succinct

  • specific and informative

  • tight not terse

  • personable not pretentious

  • empathetic and objective.

We’re not talking about ‘dumbing’ down content, compromising accuracy or diluting any brand, compliance or departmental objectives.

Rather, by removing unnecessary complexity (which often reduces word count) and erring on the side of simpler, clearer more humane writing, our content becomes:

  • quicker to consume

  • easier to comprehend and retain

  • intelligible to the widest possible audience (i.e. those with lower literacy levels, learning difficulties, and where English is not the first language).

Speaking of literacy …

Australia does not perform well on a global scale. And it’s an issue in this country that ‘digital’ can do a lot to address. According to the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALLS) survey 2006 (updated October 2013):

“46% of Australians aged 15 to 74 years do not have the prose and document literacy skills needed to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work.”
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

By extension, this impacts a person’s problem solving ability and numeracy skills too. The result lessens their full and productive participation across society.

What does this mean for corporates and governments?

In the early days of digital, corporate, institutional and government writing tended towards the ‘safe’ option.  Policy, compliance and legal overseers often ensured all bases were covered in published content; sometimes more than once in the same paragraph just in case the user didn’t ‘get’ it the first time.

FACT #1: Content that’s overwritten or full of in-house jargon often conveys 3 things about the organisation/department claiming ownership: it’s perceived as untrustworthy, old-fashioned and irrelevant.

This risk-averse approach invariably added to the bulk and complexity of content. Which in turn made user engagement, let alone interaction, hugely challenging.

FACT #2:  Repetition and ambiguity not only slows consumption and comprehension of any messaging, but can lead to misinterpretation and frustration. Not good or inclusive user experiences.

But over time, technology and data analysis – along with plain old-fashioned empathy – have combined to demonstrate and validate how content can be ’designed’ to better connect humans with government services using the simplest, clearest language.

At the end of the day (and don’t forget to avoid cliches like the plague), never use a long or complicated word/sentence structure when an exiguous (Google it) one will do.