Bulletin, April/May 2006

IA Column

Information Architecture Success Story:  The Development of www.plainlanguage.gov

by Thom Haller

Twenty years ago, when I moved to Washington, D.C., I learned to familiarize myself with the language of government. I learned that contractors often create “deliverables,” products assembled in response to government contracts. I learned that both the process and the products are often convoluted – difficult to read and use.

This state of affairs never made much sense to me. Prone to belligerence, I wondered, “Why can’t we create documents that people can use – products that help them out?” Not surprisingly, the research into clarity going on at that time enchanted me. This research told us we truly could craft documents that would help people get their jobs done.

In Washington, many of these clarity advocates started to band together under the label “Plain English,” which later evolved into “Plain Language.” Fortunately, members of the federal government’s Plain Language Network were among those most passionate about the possibilities of clear government documents.

In the mid-90s, the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) began to assemble federal resources filled with tips for writing clearly. Like many websites of the time, www.plainlanguage.gov succeeded at bringing clarity-related content together in one place. But as time passed, users found it increasingly difficult to find the information they wanted on the circa-1996 site. Generally, people needed clarity in Web structure, and from my experience I was in a position to help. So, in 1998 I began teaching information architecture (IA) classes – first to adults and later to university students.

In Fall 2002 I was working with IA students at Johns Hopkins University who were seeking strategies to “engineer” information to improve human performance. We were studying research-based heuristics from the field and needed a real-life client. The government’s plain language site seemed ripe for reshaping, but I was hesitant to volunteer university students to support a federal project.

However, just one conversation with Dr. Annetta Cheek – leader of the U.S. government's plain-language movement and organizer of the PLAIN meetings – changed my mind. After my second conversation with Annetta (as we drove to my Baltimore class, where she was a guest speaker), I was hooked. By the end of class, my concerns had vanished completely, and I felt prepared to do what it took to help both students and the PLAIN organization.

In class, I directed students in the study of site audiences, their goals, their context and the content the site’s users needed to do their jobs. Students watched live users, assessed difficulties and developed recommendations. At the end of the class I presented our findings to a monthly meeting of federal advocates. “Thanks for the analysis,” they told me, then asked, “So, what’s next?”

To respond to “What’s next?” I had to rethink the structure for my adult (evening) information architecture class at USDA Graduate School. Typically, in this class, the students worked on individual projects. We had never responded collectively to one site. But why not?

After exploring challenges people face when they use information, my USDA IA class began analyzing the data collected by the Hopkins students. They also conducted more interviews with plain language advocates and government writers, and, together with our two class assistants, evaluated the content on the 1996 site.

By paying attention to audience needs and measures of success, the students identified the need for additional content. The group then viewed this content through the eyes of actual users by interviewing members of distinct user groups and by building personas as a tool for envisioning content from various perspectives.

Next, we clustered content and developed increasingly complex prototypes for user testing. Test subjects provided feedback at three stages of prototyping: rough paper prototypes, detailed paper prototypes and design mockups. Based on feedback, and design support from a Syracuse-based information designer, site structure evolved into its current structure.

Again, time prevented the class from going further, but Dr. Cheek and several class members continued their involvement, this time as volunteers. Annetta collected content from more than 20 different writers. Former students and volunteers pitched in, including Elaine Montambeau, who redesigned the site; Miriam Vincent, primary developer of code; and Maria Lee, a Web project manager who had dropped by as a test subject and stayed around to lead the build-out.

Near the end of the project, volunteers revisited the measures of success identified at the beginning of the project, made changes in structure and added additional linked relationships. Prior to launch, the team conducted summative testing, incorporated lessons learned and focused on improving performance of those individuals entering the site.

It’s been almost a year since the re-launch of www.plainlanguage.gov. During this time, the site has become an increasingly important resource for federal writers and managers. The concepts of clarity and structure in text that are outlined on the site have served as the foundation for federal writing guidelines – especially guidelines for crafting federal Web content (found at www.webcontent.gov).

Like all Web products, this one has opportunities for progressive improvement. Current IA students are reshaping audience pages to provide additional distinct pathways for unique audiences. They are also exploring visual and technical structures related to the many before and after samples. Their questions reflect the one I posed at the beginning of my own federal-content career: What can we do to make government products easier to use?

For More Information

For additional information on the project, the process or strategies for structuring products with the user in mind, visit me online at www.thomhaller.com or contact me directly at thom@thomhaller.com. To learn more about plain language, visit the government resource site at www.plainlanguage.gov or contact the Center for Plain Language – a unique collaboration of academic, government and private sectors that have come together to promote research, education and use of plain language.