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Writing for a human-centered website

March 10, 2016

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Digital Team

We’ve talked a lot about taking a human-centered approach to building Boston.gov. At the heart of that discussion is language. 

Boston.gov language gif

A look at a sentence from a description for a City Council committee, before and after a rewrite.

If a resident doesn’t understand what we’re telling them, it doesn’t matter how great the user experience is.

The average American reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level. That’s what we’re shooting for across the website, but we’re not trying to oversimplify the content. We want to make sure that everyone can understand even the most complex s topics on Boston.gov. It’s a difficult balance. And we’re not the first ones to take it on.

18F has its own plain language guide for federal websites in the US, and GOV.UK has been at the forefront of creating government content that is accessible to a wide audience. We’re hoping that by using plain language, we can create a more conversational and welcoming tone on Boston.gov.

Below is the list of the Dos and Don’ts we’ve been sharing with departments. Let us know if you think we missed anything in the comments.


WHAT TO DO:

Write for your constituent first, always. What you're writing should be like a conversation with a friend.

Be short and to the point. Brevity can increase readability and will make the site more mobile friendly.

Use the active voice. Instead of writing, “The bill should be paid by the property owner,” we’d write, “The property owner pays the bill.” It’s much more simple and direct.

Break up content into blocks or chunks. Ideally, you should separate these blocks of text with headlines and bulleted lists of information.

Personalize the experience for our constituents. Don’t be afraid to say "we" instead of “The City.” Instead of "residents" or “applicants,” consider saying "you."

Can we use a photo with the content? Photos add depth to what you are talking about, and provide greater context for users struggling with reading comprehension.


WHAT TO AVOID

Big, flowery words, jargon, and government legalese. We should be writing to the person with the least amount of knowledge on the topic.

Run-on sentences and multiple commas in a sentence. Use periods where you can to help a reader digest the content.

Words like “may”, “shall”, “should”, or anything that might confuse a user. Use strong words like “must” when a resident needs to do something.

Acronyms. A human-centered website doesn’t require a government reference guide.