Plain language: Designed to empower the users

By Mélanie Raymond November 23, 201823 November 2018

Plain language: Designed to empower the users

 

Plain language isn’t just a buzzword. When well analyzed and properly planned, plain language can be used to give parties in a legal proceeding more power. “It’s about making sure people have some control” stresses Susan Kleimann. The CEO of Kleimann Communication Group made these remarks at a presentation in October at Montréal organization Clarity’s conference dedicated to promoting the use of plain language.

After 2009’s foreclosure crisis rocked the American economy, Susan Kleimann was tasked with reviewing the government mortgage form that prospective homeowners are required to fill out. “The statistics on the crisis were well known, but behind them hid a great deal of human suffering,” she says. “We were asked to prevent a repeat of the situation by helping expose the contract traps.”

They didn’t want to be paternalistic. After all, some customers were interested in high-risk products. They wanted to make sure of three things: that people truly understand the details of their mortgage, that they are able to make comparisons; and that they make informed choices.

To meet those three goals, Kleimann’s team couldn’t just rely on intuition. So the team embarked on an initiative to help them “know who we were dealing with.”

They created profiles for the different types of loan applicants. “There was one for grandmothers, young couples, new immigrants, you name it.” For each profile, the team asked themselves if the form contained information that would be important for the applicant.

More than a hundred prototypes were developed and several were tested on focus groups in different areas, from major cities to small towns. They also confirmed that the form worked well in Spanish, which “has become an essential language in the United States,” according to Kleimann.

It turns out the participants’ preferences did not match those of the test designers. “There was a model that we loved, with great graphic design,” says Kleimann. “We really wanted it to work.” But that model had dismal results.

The details of the proposed mortgage gradually became more complicated throughout the process. “We wanted to make sure that applicants knew the basics of each offered rate and how much it would cost them in the end,” says Kleimann. “That meant they had to understand that if they chose a rate that was initially attractive, it might grow exponentially later on.”

Despite this, they couldn’t make things too simple. “We deliberately made sure that aspects of certain highly detailed loans appeared complicated,” says Kleimann. “We wanted people to have at least some distrust, so that they would be aware of what they were actually entering into.”

For Kleimann, writing styles aren’t just a superficial matter. To her, “plain language gives power back to communities.”

The Clarity conference was hosted by Éducaloi, a Quebec organization that strives to improve access to justice.

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For more than 20 years, Mélanie Raymond has sought to centre the human side of the legal process. She is particularly interested in conflict resolution, diversity, cultural intelligence and the development of participatory projects.

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