I recently discovered the Simplification Centre, which originated at the University of Reading in the UK, now functioning as a non-profit organization devoted to what they call information design. For our purposes, we can think of this as document quality.
A couple of years ago, they published Criteria for Clear Documents: A Survey in which they compared the criteria used by ten organizations who judge document quality across the English-speaking world. Although they certainly found overlap among organizations, they also found differences in approach and coverage. There is much to recommend about this work, but I’d like to focus on how they characterized coverage.
The Simplification Centre characterized document quality with seven categories.
Content: the selection of information to be communicated
Structure: how the information is organised, sequenced and linked
Language: how the information is expressed in words
Design: the typography, layout and graphic design of the document
Feeling: the reader’s attitude and their emotional response
Understanding: what they know from reading it
Action: what they are able to do as a result
They used the graphic at right to capture each organization’s coverage of document quality characteristics. The four horizontal labels refer to what I call “textual elements” in my four-part series of posts describing how I understand plain language. Here’s how our terminology relates.
- we both use “content” for the information in a message
- their “structure” is the same as what I call “organization”
- their “language” is what I call “style”
- they use “design” whereas I include it within “organization”
The vertical labels refer to what I call “reader outcomes.”
- they use “feel” while I use terms for affect like “selection” and “satisfaction”
- their “know” is the same as what I call “comprehension”
- their “do” is what I call “able to use”
Below I’ve extracted a page from their report on how the Center for Plain Language’s guidelines for assessing quality were rated using this system. (For more on how to read the graphic, follow the link to the actual report above.) Their coverage was the most comprehensive of the ten organizations. In contrast, some other organizations omitted several entire categories (content or structure or doing). One of the signals that Simplification Centre is full of pros is that they found their own guidelines to be less comprehensive. So they intended to expand them as a result of their research into other organizations’ practices.
The approach to judging quality was embedded within a process for only two of the ten organizations. I argued in Part Four of my series on plain language (see link below) that “The only way to produce a plain language document [one that achieves reader outcomes] is to use a process for choosing text elements that incorporates planning, testing, and revising.”
One of the most interesting things to me is that there was no mention of writer outcomes in any of the organizations’ criteria for judging document quality. As I stated in Part Four: “one outcome of delivering the [plain language] document is that it achieves the writer’s purpose, while minimizing costs and maximizing benefits for the writer’s organization.” I find more and more evidence that this is an area that requires emphasis if we are to ever have widespread impact on document quality.
I should mention that Simplification Centre is running a summer school course in information design in Greece in September. Sounds like a great place to be! And, from what I’ve learned about them via their website and technical reports, I’m guessing you would learn from some real pros.