Speaking the Right Language

Turning abstract concepts into words is a hard problem. Interactive legal applications are expected to take complex legal rules and create a user experience that:

  1. Accurately informs the user about the app's purpose and scope
  2. Helps the user understand if they should use the app
  3. Educates the user on each legal element
  4. Guides them to correctly entering factual information about their case
  5. Correctly provides clear (unambiguous) guidance as to the user's next steps, or creates legal pleadings that do the same

Readability is not just about reaching people with lower reading comprehension skills. Simpler language can remove ambiguities.

The state of readability

Studies show that the average reading grade level in the United States is between 6th and 9th grade, although it may be lower for many populations who are most at risk of falling into the access to justice gap. Most Americans also feel most comfortable reading at a grade level about 2 ranks below the level that they can fully comprehend. Therefore, we recommend that you aim for an audience between 4th and 6th grade reading level, not to exceed 8th grade.

How can you improve readability of your writing?

There are a number of different measures of readability. One popular tool is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which measures the complexity of a document and assigns it a theoretical grade that matches the US education system's.

All of the different instruments primarily focus on two attributes of writing:

  1. Short (and familiar) words
  2. Short sentences

Most people agree that while testing for short sentences and words is an accurate way to measure readability, simply shortening your sentences and words is not enough. Taking a complex article and making it more readable requires paying attention to:

  • Tone
  • Voice
  • Organization

Using bullets and numbering can also help comprehension.

Using software tools

  1. Write Clearly, which is both a website readability analyzer and a Google Docs plugin that I helped write that lets you analyze a document for readability and supplies you with steps to take to fix it. https://gsuite.google.com/marketplace/app/writeclearly/28387801957
  2. Microsoft Word’s readability tool. https://support.office.com/en-ie/article/get-your-document-s-readability-and-level-statistics-85b4969e-e80a-4777-8dd3-f7fc3c8b3fd2

Examples of vocabulary to use

  • "Get" instead of receive

Further reading

Authors and acknowledgments

This article was written by Quinten Steenhuis.

Thanks to Caroline Robinson, whose thinking on this topic was instrumental.