DPD will launch a completely redesigned and reorganized website in the first quarter of 2013. When we release our new and improved website, you’ll notice a few exciting changes inspired by our customer research. The new site will work well on a mobile phone or tablet. Its organization and search function will be better. It will feature new content like simple, one-page guides to common projects and a single, searchable map to find almost any property or project data. The streamlined design will let information on permits, codes, properties, projects, and city plans—the products customers most want to see—shine through.
But the biggest change, we hope, may be something that won’t be so obvious at first glance—the writing. We’ve adopted “plain language” as the standard for our website. We think this is a natural extension of our long history of Client Assistance Memos, where we’ve explained in straightforward terms what code sections really mean and the steps to get one of our dozens of permits.
Plain language is a method of writing simply and directly. Many agencies have adopted it, including the Washington State Department of Licensing, which we used as a model for our redesign and which won a Webby Award.
Plain language is conversational, written as if we were having a conversation with you. That’s why we’ll refer to customers as “you” and the department as “we” and “us” and not as “DPD” or “staff.”
But there’s more to plain language than style; it means writing in active and direct sentences that are easier to read and understand. You will no longer see passive sentences, where we hide verbs and make up nouns and use long words to sound more official. (We hope. Point out a passive sentence and we’ll change it.)
We’ll no longer write:
“Applicants will be notified by ASC staff at the time of their appointment their permit submittal requirements.”
Instead, we will write:
“We tell you at your appointment what materials you should submit to get a permit.”
We want you to get it the first time you read it. We know your time is valuable. We want you to spend your time asking us questions of substance, not of clarification.
Some lawyers and others in technical professions who worry about being explicit don’t believe plain language applies to their work. But plain language is especially important for technical or legal writing, as that is the kind of writing customers often don’t understand. Legal organizations such as the American Bar Association encourage agencies to use plain language to help readers understand legal requirements.
We are the first City of Seattle department to adopt plain language. Anthro-tech, a nationally-known plain language trainer based in Olympia, taught us. Our director called plain language one of our most exciting events in the coming year. With all the new development underway in Seattle, that’s high praise. We hope you’ll agree the switch is worth it. (And call us out on our writing that’s not in plain language. We’re still new at it.)
Do you have questions about plain language or our new website? Email Jennifer Hager at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on plain language, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
—Written by Tom Iurino, a member of the DPD web redesign team