Get me out of the jungle!

21 November 2016
Sometimes understanding council websites can be like finding your way through the jungle

Get me out of here!

Sometimes finding information on government websites can be a bit like surviving in the jungle. You might have to digest long complex phrases, stumble over awkward acronyms, or detangle confusing council jargon to survive.

As an official government organisation, we have traditionally shared information in a formal way, using the correct terminology and language and all sorts of ‘council-speak’.

However, mostly our target audiences are not familiar with council jargon, they don’t understand the inner workings of the different departments and services and they don’t have a degree in government terminology.

Our audience

According to See a Voice, the average national reading age is 9. This means that in order to take account of all of our different audiences who need to access our information, we should make it simple enough for a 9-year-old to understand. We should certainly try to avoid using mature words that you only learn at university.

This is known as writing in ‘plain English’.

We also know that in our county we have a large proportion of people for whom English is not their first language. Keeping it simple will help this section of the population access our services online.

And we know that when people are using websites they don’t read long sentences or paragraphs – instead they will tend to skip past big blocks of text and home in on headings, links and lists.

So how do we make our services easy to understand?

We need to consider the ‘readability’ of information on our website.

Readability can be improved by:

  • Using shorter, simpler words
  • Using shorter, simpler sentences
  • Using the active voice instead of the passive voice
  • Using words we know our audience use instead of internal council terms

Shorter, simpler words

Long words are harder to read, and will exclude a large proportion of our audience. If you can use a shorter word instead, then do. Try to avoid ‘nominalisations’. The process of nominalisation turns verbs (actions or events) into nouns (things, concepts or people). These are used frequently in academic writing, but are not suitable for describing services to our customers.

For example, instead of ‘Make an application for’ say ‘Apply for’ and instead of ‘provision of services’ say ‘services provided’

Shorter, simpler sentences

Long sentences are harder to follow. Especially for those who don’t have good literacy skills. If you find a sentence seems too long, break it up. Don’t be afraid of full-stops. Use bullet points for lists. Remove any unnecessary words.

For example:
‘Your care needs and entitlement will be determined through the needs and financial assessment process that you will have to undertake, and you are free to make your own arrangements if you can afford the long-term cost of the care you will need.’

Could be shortened to:
‘We will use the needs and financial assessment process to work out your care needs and what help you can get. You are free to arrange your own care if you can afford the long-term cost.’

Active not passive

Using the active voice means that the subject of the verb is carrying out the action. Using the passive voice is where the subject is having something done to it, or acted upon. The active voice is simpler and easier to understand. It is also often shorter.

For example:
Passive: ‘Your residential or nursing placement is funded by the council.’
Active: ‘The council fund your residential or nursing placement.’

Using customer words

Customers won’t know our internal council jargon and acronyms. They may have only come to the website to perform a one-off task. We need to make sure they can find their way around our site and carry out the task they came to do as quickly and efficiently as possible.

How do we know the words our customers understand?

You can see what words people are using when they email into your service, or phone in.

We can also see what search terms people are putting into our site from web analytics. For example, although the correct term for a wedding ceremony is ‘marriage’, we know that many people think of this as ‘wedding’, so we have ensured we used both terms on the new Births, deaths and ceremonies website.

GOV.UK, the central government website has a list of words to avoid, to help you write in plain English. This is available in the GOV.UK style guide A-Z, under ‘W’.

Help with rea​​​​dability

There are tools available to help you make your web content more readable.​

Readability Test Tool allows you to test the readability of a published web page or a block of text.

Siteimprove, a service we have on our sites, provides a readability score on our web pages and highlights issues. If you would like to see a report for your pages, please let the web team know.

Web page app​​roval

The web team approve all content on the NCC sites before it is published, and readability is one of the areas we will be looking out for. Our approvers may edit your information to improve its readability and usability (making it easier to use).

Get me out of the jungle!

We don’t have to make our website like a jungle. By considering readability, we will be making it easy to use and read for all of our customers.

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