Peter Levesque—What is the role of plain language in knowledge mobilization? (PLAIN 2013)

How do we measure the value of research?

Productivity in academia is still largely measured using the “publish or perish” model: the longer your list of publications, the more quickly you rise through the ranks in the ivory towers.

But what happens to the research after it’s out there? In an ideal world, industry, government, and community groups put it to use, and other researchers build on it to make more discoveries. “If we put billions of dollars into research, shouldn’t we get billions of dollars’ worth of value?” asked Peter Levesque, director of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. “We couldn’t answer that question,” he told us, “because we didn’t know what we were getting.”

Part of the disconnect comes from the data explosion of the information age. For example, in 1945, fewer than five hundred articles were published in geology—it was possible for a geologist to know everything in his or her field. Today, thousands of geology articles are published each year, and there’s no way a researcher can keep on top of all of the research. Levesque gave another example: a family doctor would have to read seven research articles a day, every day of the year, to keep up with the latest discoveries. Physicians don’t know the latest research simply because they can’t.

Disseminating research via the traditional passive push of journals and conferences isn’t effectively getting the knowledge into the hands of people who can use it. The growing complexity and interdisciplinarity of research is also demanding a shift in thinking. This recognition—that knowing isn’t the same thing as doing—is one of the foundations of knowledge mobilization, which advocates not only a push of knowledge but an active pull and exchange, creating linkages between communities and encouraging joint production. Knowledge mobilization, admits Levesque, is a term wrapped up in jargon: there are over ninety terms used to describe essentially the same concept, including knowledge translation and knowledge transfer, but they all boil down to “making what we know ready to be put into service and action to create new value and benefits.” Knowledge mobilization is still a system under construction, said Levesque, but it is a promise of improvement. By getting the latest evidence into the hands of those who develop our policies, programs, and procedures, we can improve—and in some cases save—lives.

So where does plain language come in? Well, if the evidence we’re using is incomprehensible, it’s effectively useless. Solutions in complex systems require input from several sources of knowledge, and specialized language creates barriers to interdisciplinary communication. Because academics aren’t used to communicating in plain language, they need plain language practitioners to translate the knowledge for them or to consult them on knowledge mobilization projects.

A practical example of knowledge mobilization in action is ResearchImpact, where universities from across Canada have posted over four hundred plain language summaries of research. Another example is the Cochrane Collaboration, the world’s largest organization that makes current medical research, including systematic reviews and meta-analyses, available to all government, industry, community, and academic stakeholders. The Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Community of Practice aims to connect the practitioners of knowledge transfer from across the country.

Levesque advocates continuing the conversation between the plain language and knowledge mobilization communities to strengthen the links between the groups. One opportunity to do so is the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum, set for June 9, 2014, in Saskatoon.

Karine Nicolay—IC Clear update (PLAIN 2013)

I posted about IC Clear earlier, when Katherine McManus spoke at the EAC-BC meeting about the clear communication certificate program. Project coordinator Karine Nicolay gave PLAIN 2013 an update:

IC Clear is supported by the European Commission’s Clear Writing Campaign and fills a gap in education and training. Stockholm University, one of the program’s associate partners, has had a language consultancy program (broader than just plain language) for thirty years, but it is only in Swedish. IC Clear has been able to draw on SU’s expertise to develop its program.

Demand for clear communication professions will grow, said Nicolay, because in many countries the illiteracy rate is high and government recognition of people’s right to understand means there will be more forthcoming legislation requiring clear communication.

Neil James—What’s in a name? The future for plain language in a converging communications profession (PLAIN 2013)

What’s in a name?

Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation in Australia, asked us this question and did a bit of crystal-ball gazing at his plenary session at PLAIN 2013.

Plain language practitioners go by many titles—editor, technical communicator, business writer, and information designer, among others. Historically, we specialized in different types of documents—the plain language professionals worked on government and legal documents, the technical writers on engineering and technical documents, editors on books and magazines, etc.—and as a result, we found ourselves in institutional silos. For example, members of the Society for Technical Communication don’t often get a chance to exchange ideas with members of the International Institute for Information Design, and the Usability Professionals Association rarely talks to the International Association of Business Communicators. This fragmentation has hurt us, said James: “By being fragmented, we have allowed the organizations that we work for to downplay our importance. And what we do is damn important.”

Can we unite? Our differences are small, lying in the types of documents we work on and the extent of our intervention; we are on a spectrum of communication, not in silos. James offered this quote from Ginny Redish:

We really are all about the user experience. My definition of usability is identical to my definition of Plain Language, my definition of reader-focused writing, my definition of document design … We’re here to make the product work for people.

Plain language, as a profession, is pretty young, and it has evolved rapidly over the past few decades, expanding its focus from clear language to document structure and design and, more recently, to user testing. Because of communication convergence—the tendency for different communication fields over time to apply a common range of methods—it makes sense for us to consider converging as well. We face pressure from various fronts:

  • Technology: For example, desktop publishing has allowed us to collapse the roles of writer, editor, typesetter, designer, and proofreader into one
  • Information age: “Most of what’s on the Internet,” said James, “let’s face it, is crap.” Users will need us to mediate that vast ocean of information to get what they need.
  • State sanction: The U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010 is an example, and many other governments have recognized the need for clear communication with citizens.
  • Self-interest: By banding together, we can share resources, raise our profile, and maybe even raise our income.

What lies ahead for us? James proposes this plan:

  • Step 1: Start a dialogue—within each field and between fields.
  • Step 2: Do some research to nail down what we each do and what skills we have.
  • Step 3: Put the pieces together and consider federation or mergers.
  • Step 4: Engage stakeholders, working with academics to unify research and theory, working with industry to map out the benefits of what we do, and working with government for legislative support.
  • Step 5: Pick a name.

James predicts that we will eventually settle on “clear communication,” which captures the breadth of our work more comprehensively than any term that refers specifically to language or design. By uniting under a common name, we’ll be better able to push for formal standards and professional recognition.

Joe Kimble—Wild and crazy tales from a decade of drafting U.S. Federal Court Rules (PLAIN 2013)

Joe Kimble, a professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and the editor-in-chief of the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, is a stalwart of the plain legal language movement. His book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please is an invaluable reference for any plain language practitioner.

Starting in 1999, he led a decade-long project to redraft the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. At the PLAIN 2013 opening reception, Kimble shared some stories from that experience.

We all know that legalese is cumbersome to read, but its much more serious problem is that it leads to ambiguity. “Legalese is not precise,” said Kimble. “It’s pseudo-precise. It only seems precise.” Using before-and-after examples from the U.S. Federal Court Rules, Kimble showed how complex legal language results in

  • semantic ambiguity—when a word or phrase has more than one meaning
  • syntactic ambiguity—when the structure of the sentence gives rise to more than one meaning
  • contextual ambiguity—when inconsistencies or internal contradictions raise questions about which alternative should prevail

Ambiguity, Kimble was careful to point out, isn’t the same thing as vagueness, which presents uncertainty at the very margins of applying a term. Vagueness is unavoidable in legal drafting; the goal is to arrive at the right degree of vagueness.

Semantic ambiguity

A convenient example of semantic ambiguity in legalese is “shall”—does it mean “must,” “may,” “will,” or “should”? Kimble worked to eliminate all five hundred instances of “shall” from the Federal Court Rules and succeeded, until one “rose from the grave,” as he put it. Deciding the meaning of “shall” is a substantive call, and in Rule 56 of the Civil Rules, the “shall” had been changed to “should” during the restyling. Later, a debate flared up over whether it should have been changed to “must.” Rather than deciding the issue, the advisory committee resurrected the “shall,” while acknowledging in their report that it is “inherently ambiguous.”

Syntactic ambiguity

At the heart of many syntactically ambiguous sentences is the lack of a clear antecedent for a modifier or a pronoun. The committees working on the Court Rules often raised the concern that Kimble’s changes might alter the meaning, to which Kimble once responded, “It’s odd to worry about changing meaning when nobody seems to know what the meaning is.” In several of those cases, the committees decided to “keep it fuzzy” because the original language didn’t indicate which interpretation was the right one; that decision would be left to the courts.

Contextual ambiguity

Contextual ambiguity is particularly troublesome: are inconsistencies deliberate, or are they the result of sloppy drafting? Kimble’s examples show that “Most lawyers, no matter how skilled and experienced, are not good drafters.”


Of course, beyond untangling ambiguity, Kimble also worked on cutting wordiness. Why write, “the court may, in its discretion” when “may” implies “in its discretion”? For comparison, whereas the old Civil Rules had 45,500 words, the new rules have 39,280 (14% less). The new rules have 45 fewer cross-references and have more than twice as many headings as the old rules. The difference in the readability of the original and plain language versions is stark. An example (from the Evidence Rules):


Evidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature the witness’ credibility is impaired or enhanced.


Evidence of a witness’s religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness’s credibility.

The process that worked well for Kimble and his team was to have a plain language expert write the first draft; that version persisted unless it created a substantive change. This approach was more effective and efficient than having a plain language expert edit a document after the fact.

Upcoming posts: PLAIN 2013 and EAC-BC

I feel privileged to have been a part of the inspiring PLAIN 2013 conference over the weekend, which brought together clear communication representatives from nineteen countries and had us talking about everything from legalese to health literacy to usability testing, among many other fascinating topics. Huge congratulations to Cheryl Stephens and her team for putting on such a terrific event.

A major takeaway for me is that opportunities abound for editors and other communication specialists. After years of toiling in the book industry, whose traditional model has teetered on the brink for as long as I’ve been involved, I’ve found renewed optimism in my profession after attending this conference. Recognition by not only government but also the private and academic sectors that clear communication is essential in our age of information overload means there is so much work out there for plain language practitioners and trainers, and the fact that a lot of what we do is rooted in social justice and the belief that citizens, union members, and consumers have the right to understand our laws, regulations, and contracts is hugely affirming and provides an extra bit of motivation to keep doing what we do.

As usual, I’ll be summarizing the sessions I attended, but, as usual, the process will probably take me a few weeks. Interrupting the PLAIN entries will be one about tomorrow’s important EAC-BC meeting, where Maureen Nicholson will tell us about potential changes to the Editors’ Association of Canada’s governance structure and ask members for their input. A primer on what EAC’s governance task force has been up to is here.

Writing in plain language—an Information Mapping webinar

David Singer of Information Mapping hosted a free webinar about writing in plain language. Much of the second half of the session was devoted to the Information Mapping method, covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar that I wrote about earlier, but the first half focused on plain language itself.

Plain language defined

What is plain language? The Center for Plain Language in Washington, DC, uses the following definition:

A communication is in plain language if the people who are the audience for that communication can quickly and easily

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find, and
  • act appropriately on that understanding.

Singer likes this definition, noting that there’s no mention of “dumbing down” the information, which is not what plain language is about.

Plain Writing Act

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law: “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Interestingly, regulations were exempt from this requirement, although there’s since been a push to have regulations given in plain language as well.

Have the agencies made progress? Although some agencies have made an effort to implement plain language principles, the new law hasn’t made that much progress since it came into effect in 2011. The Center for Plain Language issued a report card in 2012 and found that out of the twelve agencies they looked at, only four scored a B or higher in complying with the basic requirements of the act. The Department of Homeland Security scored a D, and the Veterans Affairs Department scored an F.

Why were they having so much trouble?

  • The agencies were dealing with an unfunded mandate. Although the Plain Writing Act was signed into law, the agencies had no budget allowances to implement the training and changes to government documentation.
  • There was no specific yardstick to measure success. How do you define “clearer” or “easier to understand”?
  • There were no consequences for non-compliance.
  • There were no clear plans for implementation.

The effort to implement plain language faces a lot of barriers, including the fact that initial enthusiasm about the idea can fade and there is a lot of resistance to change. Technical folks may not believe that their communications can be made simpler or clearer, and attorneys and security people may not want their language to be easy to understand.

Telling people to use personal pronouns, active voice, and shorter sentences isn’t enough, argues Singer. You need a systematic method based on sound principles and a clear plan for implementation to work.

The Information Mapping method

Most of the challenges, says Singer, don’t involve grammar. Plain language’s chief concerns are about making complex information clear and accessible; writing for different audiences (how do you create a single document that meets the needs of many groups of people?); organizing large amounts of information; working with a team of writers (managing different styles, etc.); keeping up with changes; and finding a way to reuse content. Singer suggested the Information Mapping method as a way to achieve these objectives.

Some of the principles behind Information Mapping—chunking, relevance, and labelling—were covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar. The method also has three other principles—consistency, integrated graphics, and accessible detail—which the Information Mapping crew covers only in the training sessions and not in these free webinars.

Singer presented case studies to show the benefits of applying the Information Mapping to business communication. In general, Information Mapping has found that its method leads to a

  • 32% increase in retrieval accuracy
  • 38% increase in usage of the documentation
  • 83% increase in initial learning during training
  • 90% decrease in questions to the supervisor
  • 83 % decrease in the time for a first draft
  • 75% decrease in the time to review the documentation
  • 54% decrease in error rates
  • 50% decrease in reading time
  • 30% decrease in the word count

By implementing a concrete plain language plan, such as the Information Mapping method, you may see the following benefits:

  • revenue growth—by reducing the time it takes to create content and shortening the time for products and their documentation to make it to market
  • cost reduction—by capturing employee knowledge, increasing operational efficiency, reducing support calls, and decreasing translation costs (owing to lower word counts and clearer content)
  • risk mitigation—by increasing safety and compliance

Resources on plain language

For more information about plain language, visit:

(or come to PLAIN 2013!)

An archive of this webinar, as well as more information about the Information Mapping system and training, can be found on the Information Mapping website.

Helena Aalto and Laurel Boone—Good Reads: Fiction for adult literacy and ESL learners (EAC conference 2013)

Good Reads is a project spearheaded by ABC Life Literacy Canada and funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to address a shortage of pleasure reading books for adult literacy and ESL learners. Over the past three years, Good Reads has worked with Edmonton-based Grass Roots Press to publish nineteen short, easy-reading books by well-known Canadian authors; the aim of this series was to increase reading engagement and reading confidence, turning learners into lifelong readers. With the project just wrapping up, project manager Helena Aalto and editor Laurel Boone spoke at the EAC conference about their work.

Good Reads was inspired by a similar initiative in the UK, known as Quick Reads, which launched in 2006. Aalto told us that Good Reads sought out established Canadian authors with an adaptable writing style who were interested in the challenge of writing compelling stories using accessible language. Among those who accepted the challenge were Tish Cohen, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Joy Fielding, Rabindranath Maharaj, Frances Itani, and Robert Hough—names that librarians and literacy educators would know well and would be enthusiastic in promoting to readers. Robert Hough documented his experiences as a Good Reads author in a Quill & Quire article, “Not as Easy as It Looks.” Although the books were short, they often went through many revisions to meet the guidelines for adult literacy learners.

These books, around 12,000 words each, had to be adult-interest stories—these were not kids’ books—with plots that would encourage readers to continue reading, using devices such as cliff-hanger chapter endings. As Boone told us, they had to have adult frames of reference and adult complexities. Authors were encouraged to minimize changes in perspective and time; to introduce only a few characters, each with a distinct name; and to identify speakers in dialogue. Boone, who described Good Reads as “the best project of my life,” edited the books with the understanding that “readers deserve our very best. These readers are adults, and they know a lot.” Her secret intention was for no one to notice the text’s low reading level. Boone’s description of her editorial process was fascinating.

Structural editing

Boone started by assessing the structure of the whole book. Each book had to be suitable for individuals, individuals with tutors, classes, and ESL learners. As such, the chapters had to be approximately equal in length, and they had to stand alone but also work together as a whole. Paragraphs had to be short but varied.

The plot had to be absolutely tight, with no loose ends. Continuity had to be perfect, because, as Boone explained, non-readers’ memories are better than the memories of most readers. Authors had to make any changes in time or place perfectly clear, using devices such as line spaces, changes in verb tense, or changes in person as clues for the reader.

Characters had to have distinct, easy-to-read names. More importantly, they had to be true to life, and through the stories, their motives and personal growth had to be clear. Boone encouraged the authors to make most of the main characters fairly agreeable, because beginning readers are more likely to identify with likeable characters.

Finally, the setting and context had to be familiar.

Stylistic editing

Boone edited toward the goal of a certain reading level (Microsoft Word allows you to check a document’s readability statistics). Literacy learners read word by word or in very small gulps, and the meaning of each of these gulps must be clear. No word could be out of place. Boone gave an example of dangling modifiers: as seasoned readers, we’d laugh, but we’d understand the intent of the sentence; beginning readers, however, would not. While performing a stylistic edit, Boone focused on the following areas:


Boone developed strategies to offer readers complete information without explicitly explaining. “I don’t wish to be told that there’s something I don’t know when I’m in the middle of a story,” she said, and phrases like “that is” or “meaning,” followed by an explanation, can come off as patronizing. She encouraged authors to bury descriptions in the context (e.g., “Victor would know where he could sell his million-dollar Picasso painting to pay off his debts”), and keep terminology consistent.

Fact checking, explained Boone, was essential, because adult readers are very knowledgeable, and errors breed mistrust. For example, she learned the difference between a pipe wrench and a monkey wrench and was careful to make sure the right term was used. Otherwise, readers could too easily dismiss the story as stupid and stop reading altogether.

Boone also looked out for situations where there was too much non-essential information. For example, an author had written out a series of American cities as train destinations, but the names of the cities themselves weren’t important to the story. Names can be hard to read and confusing, so she recommended simplifying the sentence simply to refer to “cities across the United States.”


Sentences in Good Reads books had to be short—typically fewer than fifteen words long, and certainly no more than twenty words long. They had to be simply constructed but still varied, with superior transitions. The end of one sentence must lead on to the next one. Parallelism was paramount, and she tried to eliminate passive voice, weak uses of “to be,” and adverbs ending in “-ly.” “Everything ought to be in the context and characters,” Boone explained.


It’s easy to lose track of the speakers in dialogue, Boone told us, but saying “he said, she said, he said, etc.” can get tedious. She encouraged authors to use frequent attributions but to vary the style.


Boone encouraged authors to use common words of one or two syllables (not counting -ed or -ing) in general, but there are some longer words (e.g., university) that are familiar and some short words that may not be. Any substitutions of terminology, then, had to be precise and sensitive to adult experiences, and technical words had to be correct. Swearing and sex are part of adult experiences, of course, so Boone found ways of including these themes while making sure they were not so explicit that they would make readers or their tutors uncomfortable.

Copy editing

The copy editing was handled by an editor working for Grass Roots Press, but Boone did offer some guidelines, including a style sheet for each project. In particular, she encouraged using commas for absolute clarity (e.g., around “too” and even short clauses), explaining that commas give the eye and the mind a break. Speakers’ individual voices were respected in dialogue, but standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling were enforced in the narrative.


Supporting the text, Aalto told us, were clear page layouts with a readable typeface and a lot of white space . The books were given eye-catching covers. Beyond the books, the Good Reads website features further resources for readers and instructors, including videos of interviews with the authors, text of the first chapter of each book, and audio of the authors reading from their books. Teachers could also download a free guide for each title. The series has done quite well, Aalto was proud to say, although she added that there’s no way HRSDC would fund such a series today; all literacy efforts are going into workplace training, leaving little room for pleasure reading. However, Orca Books has started a similar series called Rapid Reads, and Grass Roots has committed to distributing those titles.

As for Boone, she found the project extremely rewarding, explaining that the usual pleasure and intimacy of working with authors was increased by working together toward an altruistic objective. She said that the ordinary principles of effective writing are easily forgotten by fluent, university-level readers, writers, and editors but that simpler is always better, even for complex ideas. Practising simple expression can help sharpen thought.

A certificate in plain language

Katherine McManus, director of SFU’s Writing and Communications program, is the only North American representative on the project team of the International Consortium for Clear Communication (IC Clear), an organization spearheading a postgraduate certificate course in plain language. She spoke at the March EAC-BC meeting about the history of the project and how it’s shaping up.

Joining McManus on the project team are

  • Karine Nicolay, of Katholieke Hogeschool Kempen in Belgium;
  • Stefan Hampl and Martin Fossleitner of Austria’s Sigmund Freud University;
  • Katrin Hallik of the Institute for the Estonian Language; and
  • Sandra Fisher-Martins of the Instituto Superior de Educação e Ciências in Portugal.

They studied the feasibility of the project in 2009, investigating the potential of delivering blended face-to-face/online instruction in English and other languages. The team met (virtually) for the first time in 2010. By the end of that year they had completed a grant proposal and secured the funding from the European Union to go ahead with the course development. They established a diverse advisory board of clear communication experts, including

  • Christopher Balmford (Australia),
  • Robert Linsky (U.S.).
  • Deborah Bosley (U.S.).
  • Karen Schriver (U.S.).
  • Frances Gordon (South Africa),
  • Ginny Reddish (U.S.),
  • Joe Kimble (U.S.), and
  • Karel van der Waarde (Netherlands).

The team also developed and distributed a needs analysis survey and created the IC Clear website. McManus explained the challenges of working with others in such far-flung locations; although they have had the occasional face-to-face meeting, such as one in Stockholm in 2011, most of the work has been done without seeing one another. The team is working toward a 2014 deadline to have the course launched.

The IC Clear course will consist of an introduction and orientation, followed by classes in four modules:

  • project management
  • user analysis and testing
  • clear writing
  • information design and media

McManus explained that candidates have the option to challenge the entire course; they may also challenge individual modules.  After candidates have gone through the course work, they will have the opportunity to do some practical work and collaborate in teams for further learning. Assessment will be through exams and probably an e-portfolio.

Additionally, there may be optional modules, although these have yet to be developed. For example, although the core classes focus on written communication, one of the optional modules may focus on spoken language.

Although neither PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) nor Clarity International has agreed to adopt the IC Clear program as a gold standard, Katherine McManus knows that the education will be valuable. The team plans to market the course to government employees, editors, professional business communicators, lawyers, and people in science and medicine, among other groups. In many cases, these professionals have good understanding of writing but poor understanding of usability.

Plain language and clear communication, said McManus, can be a very politically charged issue. Not only are people often resistant to simplifying language because they think of it as dumbing it down—which is absolutely not the case—some are deliberately unclear because they want to exclude through complication.  The issue of plain language is critical in Portugal, according to team member Sandra Fisher-Martins, because the education and literacy levels in that country are low, and there’s a great need for people to be able to create documents in plain language. Theresa Best, in the audience, told us that Sandra Fisher-Martins has given a TED talk on the topic.

The IC Clear team has a lot of work to do in the coming months as they try to complete the core course offerings by 2014. They hope to pilot the course at the PLAIN2013 conference, which is coming to Vancouver October 10 to 13. The early-bird registration deadline for that conference is April 15.

If you’re interested either in being a guinea pig for the pilot course or in volunteering for PLAIN2013, Katherine McManus encourages you to contact her.

Upcoming editing and publishing events

A lot is happening over this next week! I hope to be posting about all of these editing- and publishing-related events—though probably not all at once. Look for my summaries over the next few weeks.

1. Ethics for editors

Having been a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s code of ethics task force about a year and a half ago, I’m very interested to hear what Mary Schendlinger will have to say about ethical dimensions of editing at her EAC-BC seminar on Saturday. At our January EAC-BC meeting, David Harrison and some members of his audience had discussed whether a code of ethics was the only piece of the puzzle we were missing before we could consider editing a bona fide profession. Schendlinger will tackle such issues as how creative a piece of creative non-fiction can be and how best to navigate a situation in which an author has used racist or sexist language.

Registration for this seminar is closed, but if you can’t attend and have some ethics-related questions about editing, get in touch with me, and I’d be happy to take them to the session and bring back whatever answers I can get.

2. Plain language certification

Katherine McManus, director of the SFU Writing and Communications Program, will speak at our March EAC-BC meeting about SFU’s role in the project by IC Clear, the International Consortium for Clear Communication, to launch certification in clear communication and plain language. McManus will also give us a preview of the upcoming PLAIN 2013 conference in October, where IC Clear hopes to pilot its first course. Join us on Wednesday, March 20, at 7pm, at the YWCA on Hornby.

3. Robert R. Reid Award and Medal to Will Rueter

The Alcuin Society will present its Robert R. Reid Award and Medal for lifetime achievement in the book arts to William Rueter of Aliquando Press on Thursday, March 21. At the free event, which starts at 7:30pm at SFU Harbour Centre,  Rollin Milroy of Heavenly Monkey will interview Rueter and show illustrations of Rueter’s work.

What every designer needs to know about people

Behavioural psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk (@thebrainlady) teamed up with the folks at to offer a free webinar about some of the things designers have to keep in mind about the way our brains work. Weinschenk is the author of 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People (as well as the upcoming book How to Get People to Do Stuff). She couldn’t cover all hundred of her points in the webinar but gave us a run-down of ten of her favourites:

10. People pay attention only to what is salient

Weinschenk showed us a photo of several pennies that had its components—the year, the face, etc.—shuffled around into various positions and different directions. Even though we all handle pennies practically every day, it wasn’t easy to identify which was the correct penny in the photo. Weinschenk used this demo to show that people don’t see everything in front of them; they’re going to notice only what’s most important or most interesting to them.

9. People use peripheral vision to get the gist of the scene

Research by Adam Larson and Lester Loschky published in the Journal of Vision revealed that we can identify objects in the periphery more quickly and accurately than we can identify objects in our central vision, particularly if the information we’re receiving is emotionally charged or may indicate danger. We tend to process stuff that’s in the periphery unconsciously. A lot of design is focused on the central vision—what’s considered “prime real estate” in design—but Weinschenk suggests that we shouldn’t neglect the space around the centre and could use it to evoke a certain emotional reaction in the user.

8. Readers assume that if an instruction is written in a hard-to-read or overly decorative font, the task it’s asking you to do will be hard

Weinschenk notes that there isn’t much difference in the way we read serif versus sans-serif type, as long as it’s large enough and readable. If an instruction is in a hard-to-read font, however, not only do users overestimate the amount of time the task would take, but they are also less likely to follow the instruction, reducing compliance.

7. Miller’s Law is an urban legend

Miller’s Law states that we can store 7±2 items in our short-term memory. More recent research shows, however, that we can really remember and deal with only three to four items at a time.

6. Too many choices can be demotivating

People love to have choices, but having too many can turn them off. Sheena S. Iyengar of Columbia  University and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford published a study in which they offered one group of consumers a choice of tasting six types of jam and another group a choice of twenty-four choices. Although only 40% of the first group stopped to taste the jam, compared with 60% of the second group, 30% of the tasters purchased jam, compared with 3% of the tasters offered more choice. This point is especially important when considering navigation or know how many items to show on one screen.

5. Most mental processing is unconscious

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, documented two levels of thinking:

  • System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, effortless
  • System 2 thinking is analytical and takes conscious effort. (This is what you do when you’re solving a complex math problem in your head, say.)

Most of the thinking we do is System 1 thinking (System 2 thinking is something we have to engage, and when that happens we have a physiological response: our pupils dilate). As a result, most users are susceptible to priming.

Numbers are powerful priming tools; Weinschenk gave the example that saying “Limit 12 cans of soup per person” compelled consumers to buy an average of seven cans, whereas saying “No limit” compelled consumers to buy an average of three cans. Seeing the number 12 primed them. This point is particularly important when it comes to money, because researchers have discovered that the presence or discussion of money changes people’s behaviour. Weinschenk encourages us to build a relationship with a client first, before mentioning the price of a product or service.

Interestingly, Weinschenk told us that if a riddle or puzzle is written in a hard-to-read or overly decorative font, people get it right more often than when the same riddle is in a readable font, suggesting that the decorative font triggers System 2 thinking. She proposed the radical idea that you should use harder-to-read fonts when you want a user to stop and think carefully about something.

4. People have mental models

People come into new situations with preconceptions and expectations based on their past experiences. Everything has an interface, and that interface conveys the model on which the product is based. The better you understand that mental model and create your product to conform to it, the easier your product will be to use. Weinschenk suggests that, before you do any actual design work, you build in a step to purposely design a conceptual model that matches your user’s mental model.

3. We have two types of communities: those with weak ties and those with strong ties

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar analyzed the optimal size of a community of various species and applied the model to humans. For us, a community of 150 people or fewer is usually a “strong tie” community—we know all of the members personally, and we know the relationships between members. Falling outside of these criteria are “weak tie” communities. “Strong” and “weak” are used as anthropological terms here; strong isn’t better than weak, but designers should be aware of what kind of community they’re designing something for.

2. Speaker and listener brains sync together

Researchers Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson discovered that when a speaker successfully communicates something to a listener, their brains sync up: functional MRI scans show that the same areas of the brain light up in both parties, an effect not seen with writing and reading. Incorporating multimedia in your communications—audio in particular—is much more powerful having than text alone.

1. There’s a part of the brain that makes us focus on faces

The fusiform facial area (FFA) is a part of the brain that processes visual information about human faces. Faces can instantly convey emotional information and so are very powerful images for designers to use. Weinschenk showed us that as a corollary, images that distort the normal proportions of a human face can be extremely off-putting.


Many of these points have interesting implications for editors and plain language specialists. I’m especially intrigued now about the threshold at which System 2 thinking kicks in. Weinschenk showed that System 1 thinking often leads to the wrong answer when a problem is logically tricky. How can we improve our communications so that we can ensure the correct message gets through without having readers engage their System 2 thinking? And how do we, along with designers, find fonts that will spur System 2 thinking when appropriate but that don’t reduce user compliance?