Many UK companies are investing in improving their customer communications so that they are written clearly, in a way that´s aligned with Treating Customers Fairly and the Consumer Rights Act. But how do you measure if you are achieving this goal when there are no objective criteria for clear communication or plain language?
UK laws and regulations do not give measurement criteria for plain language
As it stands today, UK regulation and law insist that various customer documents be written in plain language but stop short of detailed criteria that companies can use to determine whether their documents comply.
Best practice points to user testing
Best practice around the world suggests that plain language starts with the reader; so it follows that companies should conduct extensive user testing to ensure that their documents are easy to read and understand.
Test your documents with customers
Many companies cite time and money as obstacles to conducting thorough testing, but even some research with employees who don’t form part of the plain language project team can yield valuable results. But ideally, user research should be conducted across a representative sample of the audience the documents are intended for.
Find out whether customers understand, not whether they think they understand
The most important rule in end-user research is that the tests establish not whether readers believe that they understand the documents, but whether they actually do understand the document. There is nearly always a gap between perceived understanding and actual understanding.
One way to test your documents with customers is to do a line-by-line analysis, getting the reader to explain each term. Presenting scenarios (If you change your mind about this policy, are you allowed to cancel it? How much interest will you pay with a 16% APR?) is another valuable tool.
What are readability tests?
Objective measures of plain language, for example, the Flesch–Kincaid readability test, can help. But they don´t give the full picture of whether a document is clear to its readers.
Readability tests focus on linguistic elements such as the active voice, short sentences and everyday words. Although these elements are certainly building blocks to good communication, they are not enough. To assess clarity and plain language, you have to also consider factors such as:
- The existing knowledge the reader has about the topic
- Whether the purpose is clearly set out
- Structure of information
- Prominence and ´findability´ if the content is online
- Completeness of information
- Format and style
- Design and layout
In short, while readability tests can help you to filter out really bad communication, they don´t do well in telling you what your readers actually will or will not read, understand and use. For that, you need a full user-testing programme.