Plain Language, Purpose, and Readability

What is Plain Language?

One of the biggest myths is that you have to 'dumb down' your content so everyone can read it. This is not true. Plain language is not only essential for people with disabilities but also users who are encountering an unknown topic or language. Using plain language will help all of your users to:

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find
  • use what they find to meet their needs


Write for your audience and focus on what they want to know

The best way to grab someone's attention is to figure out who they are and what they want to know. For almost all of the department websites in Arts & Sciences, the majority of website visitors are first-time visitors, not current faculty or students. (If you would like to see the details of your site visitors, you can look at the data in Siteimprove or contact the web team for assistance.) Tell your audience why the material is important to them. Put yourself in their shoes and look at your website with their perspective. 

Think about what your audience knows about what you're writing about and then guide them through the information they need to know. Try to answer these questions:

  • What doesn't my audience already know and what do they need to know?
  • What questions will my audience have?
  • What is the best outcome from them visiting our website? What do I need to communicate to them to get this outcome?
  • What is the best outcome for the site visitor? What do I need to communicate for them to get this outcome?


Writing for content clarity and comprehension

Content clarity is also essential for helping people with disabilities understand your website. Identify the purpose of your website and know what you should be helping the users accomplish. Make sure the substance and purpose of the content is apparent and help users quickly find the information they are seeking. 

  • Put information in a logical order with the important details first 
  • Use active voice ("You must apply by Friday" is more clear than "Applications must be completed by Friday")
  • Use familiar language and provide definitions for unusual words and for abbreviations
  • Be conservative about using moving content since it can be distracting to users with disabilities and make it more difficult for screen readers to navigate
  • Use headings and lists to break up content that is easy to scan instead of requiring users to read through large blocks of text to find important information.
  • Write descriptive headings and labels