Logan: Gold Standard for Plain English

Logan City Council website meets a gold standard for plain English

This week, Logan City Council became the first council in Australia to achieve gold-level certification for its website from PlainLanguagePro.The certification confirms that Logan City Council applied plain language principles in developing its new website.

For Logan City Council, plain language certification is part of an overall effort to ensure its website is fully accessible and user focused. By March 2020, the council hopes to display its PlainLanguagePro certification alongside a statement of compliance with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1 Level AA.

Why plain English and accessibility matter for Logan City Council

Until recently, Logan City Council had a large, complex website that reflected the council’s way of looking at the world. The website included 1,080 pages and 5,571 linked PDFs, structured under council’s business units. The homepage included a fast-moving and colourful array of news and events that were designed to make Logan seem vibrant, busy, and exciting.

Logan City Council understood that its complex website needed updating. Through research, council discovered that many residents found the old website confusing and difficult. The reasons for most visits to the website – for things like rates information, planning approvals, garbage collection, and information about animals – were buried deep within the website and difficult to locate. Users often needed to click through five or more levels of the site before downloading a PDF that provided the information they needed.

The demographics of Logan make plain language and accessibility particularly important:

  • Logan is one of the fastest-growing cities in Australia
  • 217 different cultures are represented in the population
  • 50% or residents are aged 34 or younger
  • 16% of residents speak a language other than English at home
  • 36% of residents left school at Year 10 or earlier
  • 6% or residents need help with their lives due to disability.

Logan City Council’s new website was guided by what the council calls a ‘community first’ vision – a commitment to understand the community’s needs and deliver things the community cares about. If the council genuinely wants to place the community at the core of every decision, it needs a website that most people in the community can access and understand.

How Logan City Council achieved its gold-level certification with PlainLanguagePro

PlainLanguagePro certification is a three-staged process:

  1. For bronze certification, writers need to demonstrate they successfully applied the textual components of plain English (things like document construction, sentence construction, and word choice)
  2. For silver certification, writers need to demonstrate they incorporated user research in the early stages of the project
  3. For gold certification, writers need to demonstrate they incorporated user testing prior to final production and, if appropriate, adjusted the outcome in response to users’ feedback.

Logan City Council began its website project by establishing a website team within the Customer Experience and Community Engagement Branch – an important shift away from council’s traditional marketing lens to a more customer-centric focus. The new website team is physically located with the people who answer customer service calls, giving them immediate and unmediated access to customer feedback. The council also introduced a centralised website model – with the website team now responsible for editing and uploading all content, in consultation with council’s 138 subject matter experts and content owners.

Logan’s process for redeveloping its website included:

  • Survey research to examine users’ opinions of the old website
  • Expert analysis by an external consultant
  • Stakeholder engagement with subject matter experts, content owners and council staff
  • Customer experience testing while developing the site’s architecture
  • Plain language writing and editing (the internal writing team consulted with content owners and all text went to an external editor (me))
  • User testing prior to going live (through online surveys and consulting with stakeholders).

Highlights of Logan’s approach to the website project include:

  • Reduced site complexity, with fewer overall pages and fewer linked PDFs (the website team reduced the website from 1,080 pages to around 670 pages, and reduced the linked PDFs from 5,571 to around 500 – with a goal to reduce linked PDFs even further). An implication of this decision is that many website pages are longer in the new site than they were in the old site; information that belongs together is now kept together on one page, with navigation supported by good sub-headings, a ‘jump to’ function, and an inverted pyramid approach to writing.
  • Commitment to a ‘no wrong door’ approach to the website’s construction (users should always be able to find what they need, no matter how they enter the site or how they search; no way of searching is considered ‘wrong’).
  • A navigation system that enables most users to find what they need with no more than three website clicks.
  • A plain English style that uses everyday language, easily understandable terms, a ‘you’ focus, an informal tone, short paragraphs, and simple sentences.
  • A focus on information, not decoration. The new site is simple, clean, and consistent – with clickable tiles, breadcrumb navigation, and very few images. It’s designed to recognise that users access the site because they want to do business or gather information; this website is not an appropriate place for excessive decoration.
  • The website was available for user testing and feedback for two weeks prior to its launch in December 2019. During this time, users were encouraged to complete a survey and provide open feedback about the site. The user feedback form is a permanent feature on the new site, and Logan City Council will continue to seek feedback and make site improvements. The website team responds personally to everyone who provides feedback about the site. When users suggest a change to the site, the website team explains what has been done as a result of their feedback. During the two week testing process, 7 of the 36 responses resulted in improvements to the site.

Does certification mean the website is perfect and will be understood by everyone?

PlainLanguagePro certification provides a qualitative assessment that a document has been developed using the principles of plain language. But like most things in writing, the assessment is context-specific, time-based, and subject to change.

No document will ever be perfect. And no document will ever be successful with all users. This is particularly the case for large, complex organisations like councils – with content that covers many topics, a diverse audience, a compliance role, and some content that draws on complex legislation (environmental assessments and planning approvals are good examples of this).

Logan City Council’s gold certification confirms that council completed initial research and iterative user testing in addition to considering plain language during the writing and website construction. It also confirms that council approached the website project with a genuine desire to meet users’ communication needs.