The need for plain English on web sites

Out-Law News | 05 Oct 2004 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

Do you always use the clearest and simplest language that is appropriate for your site's content? If not, you are breaking a standard of web accessibility, running a risk of legal action, and upsetting the Plain English Campaign.

The Plain English Campaign is a Derbyshire, England-based organisation that has fought for crystal-clear language for the past 25 years. It has also fought against jargon, gobbledygook and other confusing language, and is now turning its attention to the internet, having this week announced its first partnership with a web design firm, TechnoPhobia.

George Maher of the Plain English Campaign said: "We are aiming to work closely with TechnoPhobia to help raise awareness of the need to introduce guidelines for copywriting and structuring information so that the web is more user-friendly."

TechnoPhobia co-founder Pip Thorne sees Plain English Campaign's approach to improving accessibility as a progression from the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) efforts to improve technical standards:

"There is no real weight being thrown behind introducing standards for making content easy to understand. The business case for Plain English Campaign accreditation is obvious; if your website is usable and the content is easy to understand then it naturally follows that visitors will be more likely to convert into shoppers."

In fact, the W3C guidelines on web content accessibility include the following checkpoint: "Use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site's content." This is listed as a Priority 1 checkpoint, which must be met for a site to achieve what is known as Level A conformance, the most basic level of accessibility to be recognised by the W3C.

This is the same Priority standard as the need for a text equivalent of an image on a web site – albeit not as well known. In fact, many people think of web accessibility only in terms of visual impairments and the need for so-called ALT tags on images. But plain English is arguably just as important.

Struan Robertson, Editor of OUT-LAW and an IT lawyer with Masons, said:

"There are legal reasons to use Plain English: for those with dyslexia or other cognitive disabilities such as learning or memory disorders, plain English can be essential; and discriminating against those with a cognitive disability runs a risk of action under the UK's Disability Discrimination Act, which has applied to web sites and their content since 1999."

Robertson added that Regulations of 1999 – the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations – may also be relevant. "These require that terms in consumer contracts – such as web site terms and conditions – are written in 'plain and intelligible language'. Too often they are written in confusing legalese," he said.

The Campaign for Plain English operates a kite mark scheme for web sites, called the Internet Crystal Mark. John Lister, a Campaign spokesman, told OUT-LAW that the mark is only awarded to between 10% and 20% of those sites that apply for it.

The Crystal Mark is currently worn by around 50 sites. There is a fee, however: for a check of your site and for the right to display the Crystal Mark there is a charge of £1,500 for the first year and £750 for annual renewals. There is, however, a 50% discount for organisations with 50 employees or less.