Plain language for the win: Improving customer experiences with clearer communication

If you’ve ever visited a website or used an app that had unclear instructions or information, you understand the frustration of a bad customer experience. It can leave a negative impression about the company and decrease the trust you have in their services.

Now think about the times when the service you needed to use provided clear, detailed instructions, and you were able to complete your task efficiently and with few to no issues. You probably finished the process feeling satisfied, empowered, and grateful for the positive experience.

This is exactly the response the federal government is trying to create as it continues to prioritize customer experience (CX) across its agencies, and Ad Hoc is committed to supporting our customers in this important effort. They’re making real progress, thanks in part to making their communications clearer by using plain language.

There are many facets to improving the customer’s experience, but using direct, easy-to-understand language is a powerful way agencies can make their services more accessible to everyone. And while the journey to transforming CX associated with public digital services will be an ongoing effort, we’re encouraged to see some of the positive outcomes that are already happening as a result of their continued commitment.

Plain language in action

When someone needs to use a government service – whether it’s scheduling a medical appointment with the Department of Veterans Affairs, applying for social security, or filing for unemployment insurance – they should be able to complete the process, get the help they need, and move on. But that is often not the case, and as we described earlier, it can have lasting, negative impacts on how we view and interact with an agency. Even worse, it can potentially cause harm. But this is changing.

Take for example the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Unemployment Insurance (UI) Modernization. Created from the unemployment surge during the COVID pandemic, their team was tasked with transforming the digital services that millions of people across the country use to apply for and manage their unemployment benefits.

In addition to preventing fraud and ensuring benefits were being paid out in a timely manner, their other priority was to promote equitable access. One of the ways they did this was to develop a robust collection of plain language resources that states could turn to as they reworked their digital services to be more user-friendly and accessible for all.

Some of the resources they developed to help promote the importance of using plain language among state offices included:

  • A lexicon of words commonly used in unemployment insurance content. Listing the terms and sample meanings provided examples that state offices could use in their resources to better explain terms succinctly and with simple language that’s free of jargon.
  • Content governance plan recommendations to help ensure consistency and an efficient process for all teams creating and publishing new content.
  • Plain language workshops based on commonly asked questions the team was receiving from state offices. These courses focused on explaining the foundations of plain language, content-specific user experience research, and the importance of crafting a consistent organizational voice.

Providing this level of plain language support and resources clearly demonstrates their belief in the benefits of plain language and their commitment to making sure its use is standard across the government landscape.

Plain language: Worth the effort

Make no mistake – transforming complex, established content into information that is clear and concise can be time-intensive and challenging. But if it means people are able to understand an agency’s directions and can quickly complete a task because the guidance is free of jargon and unnecessary words, then we have to make that commitment.

Ad Hoc applauds the work of the Department of Labor’s Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization to clarify their processes and information – for states, claimants, and employers. We hope other agencies will look to them as an example of the power of plain language and how using it can turn a confusing process into an efficient one using clear, understandable language that lessens the public’s mental load.