By Liezl van Zyl

The value of customer collaboration and usability testing

Plain language communication is shifting from a grudge purchase to a competitive advantage. But are you doing it right?
Photo by David Travis on Unsplash
Plain language has come a long way since its origins in 1960’s America. More than ever, readers are demanding clarity in contracts, policies, forms, and processes, and companies are responding.

Even those who have clung to ‘this-is-the-way-it’s-always-been-done’ are coming to realise that clarity is about so much more than compliance and that it can boost their public image and cut down on operational costs. And who doesn’t want to save time and money and look good doing it?

Where do you begin?

The challenge that we have seen companies struggle with is just how to approach plain language writing. Some create special plain language guides to help readers understand their documents, or they follow a check-list approach to plain language. Shorter sentences, less jargon, favouring the active over the passive voice, underlining important information. We like to call this conservative approach to plain language: plain language-lite.

Others throw out their existing documents and start from scratch – implementing design thinking from the beginning and taking the opportunity to rethink their products and processes while they’re at it. These are the daring clients we love.

In both cases, however, how can you be sure that your revised version is really an improvement?  Sure, a comparison between the original and revised versions may seem like an obvious improvement, and anecdotal evidence may suggest that the revised version is clearer and more comprehensible, but to what degree?

You can’t manage, what you can’t measure

If you’re the kind of person who likes to measure the success of a project so that you can manage its outcomes, then user testing is the way to go. And if you’re wondering how user testing works, take a page from this daring company’s book…

Well-known South African investment company, Glacier by Sanlam, undertook to review their investment application forms and key information documents in 2015. They wanted to improve the clarity of the forms to better serve their intermediaries and clients while reducing the number of form-related queries they received. They approached Stellenbosch University Language Centre’s document design team and Novation Consulting, and together they worked to redesign the reader’s experience of the application form and the terms and conditions. A comparison of the original and revised versions of the form and terms looked promising – and sure enough – testing revealed that both intermediaries and clients were better able to understand the terms, and to complete the forms.

Glacier’s commitment to innovation and clarity, coupled with the skill of the team they assembled, had paid off. But the academics remained curious.

Building on the work that had already been done, and employing tried and tested plain language principles, Annie Burger tackled the form and terms again as a case study for her Masters’ thesis in Document Analysis and Design at Stellenbosch University. Annie noticed that the testing data showed that there were still aspects of the form that could be improved – already confirming the value of the user testing.  She set out to find whether there could ever be an ideal version of the form that was 100% usable and understandable, and with which people had a faultless experience. She did this by asking potential clients to complete the plain language version of the form to determine their level of comprehension. The testing indicated that potential clients had trouble with specific aspects of the form, for instance entering information in tables, or calculating percentages.

She created a revised version that addressed these difficulties and tested the form again.

“The testing of the tweaked version had some very promising results”, she said, “including that potential clients found the tweaked version more usable and understandable than the first plain language version of the form”.

However, not all the results were positive. Even though, in general potential, clients found the form more usable and understandable, certain aspects of the form were still not usable or understandable. In fact, some of the plain language tweaks had the opposite effect – potential clients now found these aspects less usable and understandable. “Although I tweaked the plain language documents with good intentions and with academic theory to back me up, it did not always have the desired effect”, she continues.

This clearly illustrates the importance of testing plain language documents with the intended audience. Although a plain language version of a document may seem more usable and understandable than a non-plain language version, it is only through testing that you can truly determine the level of usability and comprehensibility. When you know where problem areas in a document are, you can focus all your energy on improving these areas.

Of course, an important finding of Annie’s research was that documents in certain contexts are just inherently difficult to understand. Financial services with its own lingo tends to exclude people who are not fluent in FS jargon.

Have you tested your company documents? We’d love to hear about your experience.