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Plain Language In The Age of Remote Life

It's hard to imagine that less than 2 years ago remote work, online learning, and telehealth were not the norm. There was a time, and we're slowly returning to it, when students sat at desks for 8 hours a day while many of their parents did the same in their offices. When we sat in traffic or on a train listening to the top pop songs of the season. Yet, here we are. Still sitting, only now we're in our living rooms.

Moving everything online shifted how we work, learn, and connect with each other. In many ways, it increased access to information and opportunities, like attending national conferences and receiving medical care at home. In making this shift, we have to continue to make sure that we are bringing everyone along for the ride.

Meeting People On Their Terms

"Do I need to make an account for Zoom?" A 28-year-old friend of mine asked while trying to attend an online webinar to watch a friend share how he became a realtor. I told him yes and he seemed surprised. Now, this friend is not new to navigating online spaces. He plays video games, explores YouTube, and sends emails regularly for work, but he had never used Zoom before. He thanked me after telling him about the mute button before he got on the call.

We spoke for about 5 minutes. He made an account and attended the webinar.

Breaking It Down

"How do I download Whatsapp on my phone?" My 60-year old Spanish-speaking mother did not realize how difficult her question was to answer, over the phone nonetheless! I wanted another 5 minute conversation, just like I had had with my friend. I wanted to tell her to go to the Play Store, search for the application, and click the download button. But I needed to imagine the phone from her perspective.

Does my mom know what the Play Store is? No.

How could I describe to her what to look for in a way she'd understand? Mom, do you see a colorful arrow with a yellow tip pointing to the right against a white background?

But what if the Play Store icon was not on her main screen? How can I guide her to settings before I tell her about the Play Store?

We spoke for about 20 minutes across 3 phone calls while she wrote down my instructions, tried them out, and called me back to troubleshoot when she got lost.

How does the screen look from the perspective of the person on the other side of the screen? We must continue to be diligent about clear communication around technology.

A Plain Language Perspective on Tech

Successfully using the internet and all its rich functions comes with a lot of jargon that is not always easy to understand.

At the Clear Language Lab, we talk about a concept called “The Curse of Knowledge.” This is when we cannot remember what it’s like to not know what we already know. For example, what is:

  • A tab?

  • A window?

  • A browser?

  • A search engine?

  • The cloud?

How would you describe them to someone who’s never touched a computer before? Now, how would you do it if the person was not right next to you?

The Lab’s approach to plain language puts people first. We think about what our audience needs to know and how to present that information in a way they can understand and use. So, we consider not only the words we use, but also the way we present the information.

Below are some common terms we use when describing how to do something online and potential alternatives for explaining the same concept.

Common Digital Jargon

An Alternative Phrasing


Scroll to the next section.

Go down on the screen until you see blue words that say “Review.”

Describes the action you want the learner to do

Type your response where you see the cursor.

Write your response in the blank space beneath each question where you see a blinking line. The letters you press on the keyboard will appear wherever the blinking line is on the screen.

Describes what the learner can look for to complete the task, without assuming prior knowledge

Submit your response once you’re done.

When you are finished with your answers, go down on the screen until you see a gray rectangle that says “Submit.” Press it with your mouse. You will then see a white screen that says “Thank you!” which means you have sent me your answers to the test and you’re all done!

​Describes what the learner must do to complete the task

At the Lab, we prioritize our words and our format when sharing information. Below are some strategies for formatting information, so it is helpful to the audience.

  1. Break down the information: separate key ideas into their smaller parts, so you can see how simple or complex the ideas are.

  2. Chunking: group together information that is similar, so that the different parts are easy to see and understand.

  3. Sequencing: organize the groups of information into a logical order that helps the reader understand every step they need to follow.

  4. Headings: use short, informative phrases or sentences to describe and separate each individual group of information.

For an example of these strategies in action, check out how Zoom explains how to download their application on MacOS. What do you notice about the way the steps are outlined?


Put people first! Imagine — better yet, ask them! – what they need to know to be successful. Envision what your content looks like from their perspective.

  • What feels overwhelming?

  • What feels unclear?

  • What information needs to be broken down to be understood?

  • Where might an image rather than words best illustrate my point?

  • Where might a reader get lost or stuck? What can I add or change to prevent this?

Technology will only continue to be more and more a part of our everyday lives. Let’s make sure we are making it work for everyone.

Gaby España (they/them) is the Program Manager at the Clear Language Lab. They are an educator, strategist, and writer who loves problem solving with words. They are dedicated to using clear communication as a tool for equity, justice, and community building.

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