Do you think the writer was trying to help you?

Judy Knighton | August 7, 2018

When user-testing a document, we often ask participants, ‘Do you think the writer was trying to help you?’ I always enjoy the responses.

‘The writer clearly wasn’t thinking about me at all. They kept using words I don’t understand.’

‘I wish they’d told me what I was reading before I had to read it!’

‘It’s not a difficult form. I’m not bombarded — there aren’t lots of things on one page. Yes, the writer was trying to help me.’

I learn a lot as I listen to people explaining the reasons for their impressions. The latest group of user-tests was typical. The readers supported their view of the writer’s intentions by commenting on the choice of language, headings, structure, and layout.

Image, Driver and tester in the the cab of a Land Rover.

You can learn a lot by test driving your document. Image by Land Rover MENA / CC BY 2.0

Choose language that suits your readers

Language matters. Unfamiliar words and in-group jargon make a reader feel like an outsider. Legal or bureaucratic terms and sentence constructions have a distancing effect to ordinary readers.

If you’re writing for a particular group, suiting your language to them is a no-brainer, as long as you can do it well. Teenage slang from 3 years ago won’t advance your cause with this year’s teenagers, and txt speak is just irritating for those who don’t use it or who use a whole different selection.

Language that’s both conversational and professional works for the widest number of people.

Write headings that act as signposts

Well-chosen headings guide the reader from one point to another. A quick scan of the headings gives them a ‘road map’ that supports their understanding of each section as they read it.

Without such support, they’re trying to do two things at once as they read: understand the words they’re reading, and build a picture of the whole publication to provide the missing context.

Headings that give a brief summary of the key messages of their section reduce the effort a reader has to make.

When structuring, use a logic that suits your purpose and audience

One of the most common mistakes we see is an overall structure that makes sense to the organisation producing the publication, but not to the reader.

Trial and error has given us some standard structures we can copy.

Recipes start with ingredients, then the step-by-step instructions for carrying out the task of making the dish. Building plans for kitsets use the same basic structure.

In emails, letters, and reports, the MADE structure is often best — Main message, Actions the reader needs to take, Detail, and anything Extra that might be useful last of all.

One useful way to remain user-focused is to find out what questions your reader has. The answers to those questions become the document content, and the structure comes from a logical order for those answers.

In layout, prefer clarity and order to flash and sizzle

Can you remember an advertisement you absolutely loved? Or a book cover that wowed you? Or a movie trailer you shared with all your friends? Now. Do you also remember what the advert, or the book, or the movie were about?

Flashy presentation is no match for memorable content.

Of course you want your publication to look good. But above all, you want people to read it. Watch out for poor contrast, small fonts, too little or too much white space. These design choices might seem beautiful to your designer’s eye, but they may work against legibility.

Tips on these techniques

Sentences and words



Layout and presentation

Plain Language Foundations (online course)

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