Dumbing down

Picture saying

The Oxford English Dictionary says ‘dumbing down’ is: ‘simplified so as to be intellectually undemanding and accessible to a wide audience.’

The most important word in that definition is ‘accessible’.


If you make your content easy to read, you aren’t ‘dumbing down’, you are opening up your information to anyone who wants to read it. You are making it accessible. You are trying not to exclude people based on their education, cognitive function or reading ability.

The stats

If we write clearly with good structure, short sentences and plain language we are helping people read. Just in the UK alone, this means we may be helping:

  • 1.5 million people who have a learning disability
  • 7 million (conservative estimation) people who have dyslexia
  • 2 million people with a visual impairment
  • lots of us on a dodgy internet connection
  • most of us who don’t want to read and re-read something just to understand it

The second important term in the definition is ‘intellectually undemanding’. What’s more important to your users: learning how to read your information or understanding it?

When I have the ‘dumbing down’ argument (and I have the argument a lot), the actual problem usually falls into 1 of 3 categories:

  • I can’t find it
  • I’m not used to it
  • I’m terribly clever (and so are all my friends)

Let’s take those in order.

I can’t find it

Sometimes, when we simplify information we can inadvertently miss things out. In which case, by understanding the user need better, we can just put it back in.

But “I can’t find it’ is a lot different to ‘it’s not there’. You need a lot of really good writing and work to help users find the right page. Structuring a page properly and using the audience’s vocabulary should stop this from happening.

I’m not used to it

Back at the Beta stage of GOV.UK, the team and I wrote some lovely copy to the new, shinystyle guide. I was so very happy. Every piece of content was clear, to the point and wonderful.

When we put it into testing, one of the first sessions included a web savvy, smiley participant. She sat down and was very chatty. We all hoped we’d get a lot from this session.

My lovely words were put on the screen. The participant leant forward and peered intently. Then she sat back and her smile vanished. She leant forward again, frowned, turned to the researcher and said: ‘Is this from government?’
The researcher nodded.
“But I understand it.”
The woman stared at the researcher with confusion. She sat back in her chair and typed her way back to Google.
“I get that [the information]. It can’t be from government. [pause] I don’t trust it”.

I was mortified. If all users said that I would have to go back to the turgid old dross government was churning out. Users expected a certain style of writing and I wasn’t giving it to them.

Luckily, that was not the case. Almost all the users mentioned how great the writing was and that they weren’t expecting it. Luckily, design stepped in and came up with something people trusted so I could leave our style guide intact.

Just because something is new doesn’t make it wrong but if it’s not familiar, it can be confusing and may seem ‘wrong’. In this case, changing the design was all that was needed. It wasn’t dumbing down – it was what people were used to and trust. It wasn’t the words. It was the page as a whole.

I’m terribly clever (and so are all my friends)

People often say the language should be more complicated because they can understand it and so can all their friends/colleagues and the website isn’t for anyone else.

This happens a lot with specialists. People who think they are only talking to people in their industry. They say: “Everyone knows what we are talking about.”

Oh. So you never have new people in your industry then. You never have people just curious about your job/information/service. You never have anyone, ever, who wasn’t born with the knowledge you have or someone to tell them everything you know using the language you use.

Okay.

The internet isn’t closed and you can’t control your audience unless you put a password on your site.  Over 40% of the world’s population has access to the internet. Over 87% of the UK has access. By publishing on the internet you are inviting people to enter your world. Respect them when they get there.

I’m not saying don’t use technical terms, just explain them the first time you use them on a page. Don’t bombard people with long, convoluted sentences. We all have lives. We want to get the info quickly and then go and make tea, play with the kids, go out – not marvel at your intelligence.

Accessible content

Having accessible content is making sure everyone can get to the information they are looking for. Whether that’s by helping assistive technologies work well with your pages, making sure the design isn’t confusing or that you write in an inclusive way.

We are not writing clearly because people are dumb. We’re writing clearly because we respect their time, interest and attention.

Research 

These are research papers that may help you if you are having the ‘dumbing down’ argument.

Free
Dyslexia and accessibility/usability by Jacob McCarthy

Christophe Trudeau studied legal text and found that ‘…41% of respondents got ‘annoyed’ when they read complicated terms’ … and ‘….”0.5% said they’re “impressed.”’(Blog post on legal language coming in a few weeks.)

GOV.UK style guide research
As Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS), I asked the University of Reading to research the style guide. We have lots of user research but I wanted academic research too.

Pay for
Two-year study about  reading and navigational strategies of users with medium to high literacy skills and those with lower literacy skills.

This study shows ‘overuse of technical language’ means some people don’t understand advice and it leads to negative thoughts about someone’s expertise and trustworthiness.

Research from New York shows how people don’t trust language when there’s jargon in it.

Last thought

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
– Albert Einstein
Image credit: Ben Terrett (@benterrett)
The phrase ‘it’s not dumbing down; it’s opening up’ is taken from the GOV.UK style guide in the plain English section.
Sarah Richards

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