Last month I went to two conferences in Sydney: one on Information Architecture and the other on Plain English.
Undoubtedly, I upset a few people at both by suggesting that some of the projects reported were not of an adequate standard. In the case of the Information Architects I was critical of the stakeholder management processes used in a large website project. In the case of the Plain English conference, I had already lobbed a few grenades before the conference began, arguing that Plain English is an inappropriate basis from which to develop an adequate standard for public communication. Three days of careful listening to presentations substantially confirmed my views, though I now have a better insight into some of the possible reasons for the inadequate standards.

Shooting the messenger is one of the ways in which people deal with adverse criticism, and there were plenty of shots directed personally at me and, more generally, at the vague body of naysayers like me. But I’m an old warrior with thick armor, no stranger to controversy, and I like a good fight. So I didn’t roll over, nor did I retreat into my bunker to lick my wounds. I stand by the criticisms I made, and if need be, I will make them again.

For those of you who are still reading this, let me explain why these criticisms should be taken seriously by Information Architects and Plain English practitioners and advocates.

I’m a communication researcher. It’s my job to investigate routine communication practices such as Information Architecture and Plain English and to create new practices such as diagnostic testing; it’s my job to test them out in the field, find out what works and what fails, and based on my findings, promote the best practices and discourage poor practices. Above all, I offer evidence that can be publicly scrutinised and evaluated by my peers. Most of what I do is in the public domain and is reported on our Institute’s website or in peer reviewed publications.

I am not setting myself up as an authority beyond question, an unchallengeable arbiter of what should or should not be done. Far from it: I make the criteria I use and the evidence they are based on as public and as accessible as I can, and welcome open discussion.

I could, of course, do this work quietly in the back room, but that is not my personal style, nor is it consistent with my job description which is to promote good practices and a general improvement in the quality of communication between large organisations and people. And it is worth pausing for a moment to ask why I regard this work as important. The answer is simple. If we do not communicate at the highest standard, some people die or suffer injury, and many people are unable to exercise their rights.

For example, if people cannot appropriately use their medicines because they cannot read a medicine label or leaflet, they can kill themselves. If an electricity linesman cannot follow procedures for inspecting faults on lines because the written procedures for doing so are difficult to use, the unrepaired faults can lead to fires and many people being killed or injured. If refugees cannot make sense of the regulations applied by governments to establish their status, they will be distressed by a process that is supposed to help them.

A high standard of communication can significantly contribute to avoiding death, injury and hardship.

It is also nice to know that high standards of communication lead to more efficient and profitable organisations; but that is the bonus, the icing on the cake. The bottom line is that a poor standard of public communication is unacceptable for safety and social reasons.

There would be some excuse for poor communication if the know-how for creating a high standard was unavailable, but that is not the case. For some time now, tested methods have been available in the public domain. So when I see work that claims to be ‘professional’ yet falls short of acceptable standards, I voice my concerns.

I could go into a great deal of detail, but two points will suffice. First, professional information designers have known for years that the political management of projects—that is, ensuring that all stakeholders are actively involved—takes up about 50% of the effort in public communication projects; poor stakeholder management is the greatest risk to success of such projects. So hearing the ‘professionals’ at the conferences talking about their recent discovery of political factors, and their accounts of fumbling through the process, caused me great concern. Second, there is an old saying that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. To information architects, it seems, the solution to public communication problems lies in building a website; to Plain English advocates the solution lies in rewriting documents according to their rules. Such rapid moves into the solution to communication problems shows a sad lack of awareness of contemporary design problem-solving methods used in communication and information design.

I suspect that by making these remarks I shall get fewer invitations to speak at conferences, but that does not matter. What matters is that people continue to be needlessly harmed and disadvantaged, and that must be addressed, regardless of who says it.