Nov 28 2018
Nov 28

Variety of content and the need for empathy drive our effort to simplify language across Mass.gov

Nearly 7 million people live in Massachusetts, and millions more visit the state each year. These people come from different backgrounds and interact with the Commonwealth for various reasons.

Graphic showing more than 3 million visitors go to Mass.gov each month.

We need to write for everyone while empathizing with each individual. That’s why we write at a 6th grade reading level. Let’s dig into the reasons why.

Education isn’t the main factor

The Commonwealth has a high literacy rate and a world-renowned education network. From elementary school to college and beyond, you can get a great education here.

We’re proud of our education environment, but it doesn’t affect our readability standards. Navigating the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program might be challenging for everyone.

Complexity demands simplicity

People searching for nutrition services are doing so out of necessity. They’re probably frustrated, worried, and scared. That affects how people read and retain information.

Learn about our content strategy. Read the 2017 content team review.

This is the case for many other scenarios. Government services can be complicated to navigate. Our job is to simplify language. We get rid of the white noise and focus on essential details.

Time is not on our side

You don’t browse Mass.gov in your free time. It’s a resource you use when you have to. Think of it as a speedboat, not a cruise ship. They’ll both get you across the water, just at different speeds.

Graphic showing desktop visitors to Mass.gov look at more pages and have longer sessions than mobile and tablet visitors.

Mass.gov visitors on mobile devices spend less time on the site and read fewer pages. The 44% share of mobile and tablet traffic will only increase over time. These visitors need information boiled down to essential details. Simplifying language is key here.

Exception to the rule

A 6th-grade reading level doesn’t work all the time. We noticed this when we conducted power-user testing. Lawyers, accountants, and other groups who frequently use Mass.gov were involved in the tests.

These groups want jargon and industry language. It taught us that readability is relative.

Where we are today

We use the Flesch-Kincaid model to determine reading level in our dashboards. It accounts for factors like sentence length and the number of syllables in words.

This is a good foundation to ensure we consistently hit the mark. However, time is the most important tool we have. The more content we write, the better we’ll get.

Writing is a skill refined over time, and adjusting writing styles isn’t simple. Even so, we’re making progress. In fact, this post is written at a 6th grade reading level.

Jul 18 2011
Jul 18

Spend any significant amount of time reading long articles on the web and you get distracted. Distracted by sidebars and insets full of links and animated graphics, many of which are advertisements. Distracted by badly set typography. Distracted by "next page" links at the bottom, forcing you to wait for the next part of the article to load as the publisher gets another increased statistic to sell. 

Enter Readability. Developed by Arc90 as an experiment, Readability started life as a bookmarklet and browser extension designed to improve the reading experience. In addition to decluttering distracting constituents of a web page, the bookmarklet offered a consistent look that stripped an article to its essential element, the text. After Arc90 released the bookmarklet as open source software, Apple's integrated the code into the Safari web browser. Subsequent to that the company changed direction with Readability in January of this year and started a web service for both website publishers and readers. While keeping the core service of simplifying articles for easier reading, with the new Readability, publishers of any type on the web — from magazines with multiple contributors to single editor blogs — can integrate Readbility into their website and optionally receive payments for their work from readers who sign up to contribute.

How Readability Payment Works

Publishers first must claim their website by adding a special code to the HTML header, which they can remove after verification. Using their own Readability accounts, readers can contribute a monthly fee that they, the readers, individually specify. (Publishers have no say what readers have to contribute, though Readability sets the monthly minimum at $5.) Readers' money first goes to Readability, who take a 30% cut. Readability then divides the remaining 70% amongst the publishers that readers, while logged into Readability, read through the service. As a simple example, let's say a reader only reads two online publications, The New Yorker and The Bygone Bureau. If a reader contributes $10 per month, and in the span of a month, uses Readability to read 6 articles from The New Yorker and 5 articles from The Bygone Bureau, Readability takes its $3 cut and The New Yorker gets $3.82 ($7 divided by 11 total articles, multiplied by 6 New Yorker articles) and The Bygone Bureau gets $3.18 ($7/11*5).

Readability buttons, as they appear on websites, typically offer the reader has the option to send the article to Readability and come back to it later ("Read Later") or immediately convert the article to Readability's simplified version ("Read Now"). Some tools that do 'read later' functionality, like Instapaper, can, after reading through the app, send the link to Readability so that it is counted towards the reader's monetary contribution.

Publishers do not need to claim their website or receive any payment in order for readers to use the part of Readability that converts article to pleasant-looking text, nor do readers need to pay Readability to convert distracting pages. The publisher-contributor model constitutes a new way for publishers and writers to make a few bucks on their creation and for readers to keep good writing coming without have to put up with (as many) advertisements. One publisher confided in me that "nobody's getting rich off it," referring specifically to Readability, but Readability at leasts represents an opportunity for innovation in the ways publishers, writers and readers interact and support each other.

Readabilty Button for Drupal

Screenshot of a Readability 'Read Now | Later' button on an example node in Drupal

Since I work primarily with the content management system Drupal, and wanted the functionality not only for my site but for other Drupal sites, I've developed a module called Readability Button. "Without this module, site maintainers would have to edit their theme directly, introducing code that they need to maintain. Instead, they can turn on the module and change settings, and if they want to discontinue Readability integration, can simply disable the module. Readability Button features the following:

  • Enable the button on a per-content type basis. Also a permission to show the button on nodes to certain roles.
  • In the module configuration, temporarily add the verification string (the full element provided by the Readability web service) without editing your theme. You can disable this after you've verified your domain.
  • Configure whether to show only on the individual node view or also on lists (such as the blog page or taxonomy views).
  • Optional Print, Email, "Send to Kindle" buttons.
  • Modify the colours of the foreground and background using hexadecimal colour codes. Optional integration with jQuery Colorpicker.
  • Change the orientation of the button from horizontal to vertical.
  • If a reader is logged into their Readability reader account, and the reader is a contributor, clicking the button sends a portion of their contribution to the site's publisher.

If you add the module to your Drupal site, I encourage you to make a feature request and submit bug reports in the issue queue.

Imagining a 2.0 branch

The module as described as above has some limitations:

  • Once you add it to a content type, all nodes of that content type receive buttons, no matter how short
  • If you allow the button on lists, it appears on all lists. that includes views, taxonomy term pages, blogs, etc.
  • The weighting of the button is somewhat of a kludge

A 2.x branch of the module, which only exists in my head, comprises of the following features:

  • Make the Readability button a field in the Drupal 7 sense. This would enable many things for "free":
    • flexible placement of the field in content types, using the per-content type field settings
    • Views integration, meaning with any list you can override settings to show or hide the Readability button
  • Readability API integration, meaning authentication and management of your Readability publisher account for websites and reader accounts for site members
  • If the website uses the Domain Access module, then each site could conceivably have its own 'domain' in Readability as well. Imagine individual bloggers on a Drupal site as a publisher who gets the 70% cut from Readability

Beyond the Module

Just a Gwai Lo currently uses the Deco theme, and, in order for Readability to reliably convert my own website to the clutter-free text, I made some slight changes. In particular, I needed to ensure Readability correctly picks up on article titles and dates. Per Readability's recommendations to mark up articles in the hNews microformat, I've added an entry-title class to my

<

h2> tags, necessitating modifications to the theme's template.php and node.tpl.php files. I also added a element wrapped around the date for blog posts. The right way to do all of this would be to find a way to modify the theme elements in a module, though I think the only option available to me is to maintain a sub-theme.

About Drupal Sun

Drupal Sun is an Evolving Web project. It allows you to:

  • Do full-text search on all the articles in Drupal Planet (thanks to Apache Solr)
  • Facet based on tags, author, or feed
  • Flip through articles quickly (with j/k or arrow keys) to find what you're interested in
  • View the entire article text inline, or in the context of the site where it was created

See the blog post at Evolving Web

Evolving Web