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Plain Language and Inclusive Document Design

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this month about making teaching documents of all kinds more accessible. Some of this is about a syllabus, but some of it is about rethinking some of our signs and documentation at work, as well as ways that we can make our edX courses more accessible to that highly varied audience. So I was delighted to discover an excellent new article on In the Library with the Lead Pipe by Jennifer Turner & Jessica Schomberg on “Inclusivity, Gestalt Principles, and Plain Language in Document Design.” (Some of the article’s insights are also in Evan Snider’s “Teach Document Design, Not Formatting Requirements” and George’s post about “Best Practices for Accessible Print Document Design”, but it’s definitely a rich, evergreen topic.)

They start from the point that accessibility and accommodation are not the same thing: Accessibility is “the deliberate provision of access through a thoughtful awareness of the multiple ways in which our users might need to interact with our resources. Accommodation puts the burden on our users.” I rather like the implicit structure of hospitality implied here: awareness is thoughtfully anticipating what users need, while accommodation forces them to ask for alternatives that might be needed.

The brief account of Gestalt theory is interesting and suggestive, but I will leave it to people who read the whole article.

For me, the most helpful discussion was around plain language. This is directly opposite to one of my own basic impulses in syllabus or handout design, which is to try to entice students into stretching their vocabulary or ability to handle complex prose a little. (I mean, my syllabuses weren’t dense like Henry James!) Having said that, I was largely persuaded by Turner and Schomberg’s emphasis on positive phrasing, on incorporating headers, and so forth. In particular, I did like this section on “Words” (oddly, the second section on words in the article):

Use everyday words. Documentation does not need to be written in highly academic, obfuscatory language. Documentation needs to be written using words that are understood by your audience. If your audience is multilingual, try to find the resources to offer documentation in multiple languages. However, don’t just copy and paste text into Google Translate and call it good. Even if you use your clearly written English version as the basis of a non-English draft, you need to hire an expert speaker to edit and proofread it for you (Wallwork, 2014).

Using a succinct, clear, and active voice directly supports UDL’s guidance to use clear vocabularies and structures (CAST, 2014). This practice also supports access for multilingual learners, who may have more limited vocabularies in their non-native tongues.

This definitely comports with our edX experience, which is that plain language is the best place to start in situations with a wide range of fluencies.

Finally, they propose “Turner’s Five Laws of Document Design” (based on Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science):

  1. Design is for use. Consider your users. What will make the document more useable for them? Fonts, screenshots, and colors should be considered with the intended user or users in mind.
  2. Every document its design. What format is best for the task at hand? Task-oriented activities might be well-suited for a list format, while complicated concepts might require lengthier explanations. Additionally, consider multimodal documentation. Videos may help document users understand the text and vice versa.
  3. Every design its purpose. Just because a design or format choice is possible, doesn’t mean it is the correct choice for a given document. A fancy font or video should be employed to achieve specific means. Return to the first law of document design and consider the needs of potential users over your own needs. Colored paper may make it easier for you to organize handouts, but document users with vision impairments may benefit from high contrast black-on-white printing.
  4. Save the time of the user. What are the document’s end users looking for in the material? How will they use it? Do they want or need to consume the entire document or would it be better to divide the content into smaller pieces for point-of-need reference?
  5. Documents are changeable organisms. Documents should be continuously updated to reflect feedback from users, changes in conditions, and new information about document design best practices.

What’s more, Turner and Schomberg give examples of how they apply their principles to transform documents. All in all, it’s an article filled with easy-to-apply principles for anyone who prepares documents for others, and definitely worth reading in full. Do you have a favorite resource for inclusive design and plain language? Let us know in comments!

Photo “2011 04 10 Treedom XII watching” by Flickr user Mark Strobl / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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