Apr. 30, 2010 - Washington, DC – A clear online video that explains low back pain, and a confusing homeland security form captured the two top national Plain Language Awards, sponsored by the Center of Plain Language. For its video on low back pain, Healthwise, an Idaho-based nonprofit was honored with the Grand ClearMark Award for the best and clearest language use. The I-94 form from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a D.C.-based federal agency, received the Grand WonderMark Award for the worst and most unclear communication.
The awards were presented Thursday, April 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The ceremony featured comedian and political impressionist, Jim Morris. Morris, who is best known for his presidential impressions and comedy routines including those appearing on Saturday Night Live, hit just the right humorous tone accepting the WonderMark Awards as various presidents and pop culture icons. Morris was joined by Master of Ceremonies, Christopher Balmford, President of Clarity, Melbourne, Australia.
Capturing the Grand ClearMark Award,, Healthwise used an online video format to present information about low back pain in an easy to understand format. The information compares the spine to a bridge to explain what causes low back pain, and also provides clear information about how to manage the condition. Healthwise also captured a ClearMark Award in the category of an original document produced by a nonprofit.
“This was a well done video with a message that provided a good explanation of the problem, an easy flow of information, and great analogies,” said Annetta Cheek, PhD, Chair, Board of Directors, Center for Plain Language. “In addition, the information was presented in a relaxed conversational style and reached out to each viewer personally.”
Other ClearMark Awards recipients for the best clear language use include:
Aetna Health Literacy Newsletter. Category: Original document in the private sector. Produced by Aetna employees who volunteer to create it, this newsletter has 3,000 subscribers. Using a relaxed, conversational style, the newsletter makes complex healthcare information easy to understand.
First Choice Power Bill Redesigned, Category: Revised document in the private sector. For making a complicated electric bill graphically and textually more user friendly, the First Choice Power Bill redesign was honored with a ClearMark Award. The improved use of color, large account number, and use of bold type, helps make the bill simpler and clearer.
Aetna Health and Wellness. Category: Website in the private sector. This clean, attractive website contains relevant health information. The information is organized in practical and easy manner and is simple to understand. Overall, the website is easy to navigate.
Group Health Informed Consent for Surgery. Category: Revised document produced by a nonprofit. Using a readability-based evaluation system, Group Health revised its surgery consent form to reflect a simpler, yet non-condescending tone. It also clearly lay out the risks of the surgery and uses graphics to tie all the elements together.
Federal Trade Commission and other federal agencies: Model Privacy Form. Category: Original public document. With an improved format that helps consumers understand the document, the Model Privacy Form reflects a balance of required regulation and industry comments in an easy to read format and well-organized design.
State of Washington Plain Talk for Public Records. Category: Revised public document. This document challenged the State of Washington to translate legalistic language into straightforward talk that is easily understood by the public. This revised document reduced consumer calls and eliminated most of the legal language.
Department of Health and Human Services, Quick Guide to Health Living. Category: Website in the public sector (tie). Using an extensive pre-testing system before launching the website, this site hits the mark with its simple to use and easy to understand format. It provides people at all levels of literacy with relevant healthcare information.
City of Gresham, Oregon. Category: Website in the public sector (tie). Leveraging community wide testing, this site was designed to meet the needs of Gresham, Oregon residents. It’s an intuitive, clean site with links to everything a current or prospective resident needs to know about Gresham.
While the ClearMark Awards honored the best or most clear language use, the WonderMark Awards were presented to the submissions that reflect the worst or most unclear language use. According to Cheek, the awards were named WonderMark because “we wonder what they were thinking when writing these documents.”
The overall WonderMark Award recipient was the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Form I-94. This form, which is used by those entering or re-entering the U.S., is filled with language that is confusing, arcane and offensive. The form has a challenging layout making it difficult to complete. The questions are condescending, the content is unrealistic, and the tone is bureaucratic. It is a particularly noteworthy nomination because of its high-volume use and the fact that it presents a first impression of our nation to visitors.
“It might not be the best way to start out by saying to U.S. tourists: ‘Welcome to the United States -- you diseased, crazy, drugged-out, criminal, lying, spying, child abuser!’” says Susan D. Kleimann, PhD, Chair of the ClearMark Awards. “I’m wondering how many citizens, let alone foreigners, know what ‘moral turpitude’ means? And why say ‘Type or print legibly’ when it’s unlikely that tourists bring typewriters on the plane.”
Other WonderMark Award recipients include:
Temple University Online Policy. From the sunny "Welcome," through the boring browser compatibility language, to the Kafka-esque depths of the Disclaimer, this is a depressing policy document. It says "here are our official policies -- but then again, they may not be, because if we don't like how something is going, we're just going to make up a new policy on the spot.“ This is a sterling example of institutional hesitancy and inclination to be risk adverse.
Blackberry End User Agreement. There is a disconnect between Blackberry’s brand (modern, efficient, easy to use) and this agreement which contains crowded hard-to-read text, convoluted legal language, impenetrably thick paragraphs, misused capital letters, and lack of overall design. All of these elements deter consumers from actually reading the agreement. This example illustrates the problem with many legal documents--they read more like a "save your butt" piece designed for attorneys and to protect the company against lawsuits, than one written for consumers.
Department of Education Regulation. For long sentences, confusing language, legalistic terms, and incomprehensible lists, the Department of Education received a WonderMark Award. Many of the sentences in the document start with complicated exceptions rather than the main idea. The overall language is confusing and uses legalistic terms, such as “notwithstanding.” Further, the lists are used ineffectively and incorrectly—perhaps tables would have helped clarity.
Chase Card Member Agreement. This document represents a confusing graphic design with no white space complicated further by dense text. The agreement’s organization is complicated and uses many technical terms. Unfortunately, this is typical of similar letters from many financial institutions.
Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Emergency Instructions. For its archaic language, poor diagram and instructions, and the fact that the message is not audience or situation focused, SEPTA’s emergency instructions captured a WonderMark Award. The emergency procedures sign is an example of well-intentioned writers who seemed to forget the context in which their message would be read. The sign's shortcomings would have been revealed through real-world testing. Unfortunately, the consequences of the flaws in these emergency instructions could be tragic.
Judges for the ClearMark Awards consisted of a national panel of plain language experts. For more information or instructions on how to submit a 2011 ClearMark or WonderMark nomination, go to http://www.centerforplainlanguage.org.