Plain Language, Plain Design

In web development, plain language can mean the difference between a user continuing to engage with the website or clicking open a new tab. Particularly the landing page of a website should have engaging, almost casual language; it’s critical that users feel at home when they see the first page. Scary, overly technical or verbose language presented in an ineffective, cramped style will only serve to severe your connection with readers.

In my HCI classes, I’ve learned mostly how to style content so that it isn’t hard to consume. I have learned how to use visual elements (sparingly) to highlight important sections of text that are key to understanding, and how to weave links to new pages into the content to create a reference system to improve user understanding. We often discuss the importance of font size and color and the importance of white space (which can be used to frame text but also eases the burden on a reader when trying to scan the page). Page color in particular can set a tone for the webpage and ideally should be consistent across all the pages; utilizing one or two colors in a variety of shades is more comfortable to readers than consistently startling them with lots of different, bright colors. As you can probably tell, we talk a lot about design in my HCI classes and there’s a big push to keep the design ‘plain’.

Often (in my understanding), web developers use pre-existing content prepared by a technical writer. This may be why we haven’t discussed plain language as much as simple design principles. However, were I to become a freelance web developer it could become necessary for me to develop my own content. If that’s the case, I need to be able to make content that matches my designs (that is, simple and engaging). Plain language means using less technical language.

On websites, it’s easy to offer external links to define tricky terms that simply must be included in the content. Breaking up that content into easy-to-manage sections is also important to allow users to find the content they’re looking for. It’s important to be concise whenever possible; less is more, with content. The design element of white space becomes critical here; the longer a section of text, the less likely the users are to continue reading it.

Plain language works well with plain design in my field; both the content and the way it is displayed should be simple to encourage users to engage with the website.

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