Reaching (and respecting) veterans with plain language

To honor our US veterans today, let me share an example of exemplary writing practice from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

A team working on a form wanted to use the question, “When were you last (gainfully) employed?” They felt that the term “gainfully employed” would gather more legally sufficient and accurate information than just the word “employed.”

Testing showed that readers used at least three different definitions of “gainful” employment:

  • Any job
  • A job that provides benefits or where you can put money away
  • A job that keeps you above poverty level

In fact, research showed that different government agencies may have different definitions of “gainful.” But, more importantly, because each reader had a different definition of the word, the agency would have gotten less accurate information if the word had been in the document.

Check out other examples from the VBA. They have a history of testing messages they will send to veterans.

The federal government recommends several types of testing in its plain language guidelines.

  • Paraphrase Testing: individual interviews, best for short documents, short web pages, and to test the questions on a survey
  • Usability Testing: individual interviews, best for longer documents and web sites where finding the right information is important; also best for forms — see http://www.usability.gov.
  • Controlled Comparative Studies: large scale studies where you don’t meet the people but you collect statistics on responses; use paraphrase testing and usability testing on a smaller scale first.

Testing is a best practice for any organization that cares about the effectiveness of its messages. It’s a pleasure to share something positive about our federal government–especially today, when we remember all of the men and women who have served on the behalf of the rest of us!

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