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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.