Free up the content! Solving the usability conundrum in our plans and government documents

by Paul Sweum, Snoqualmie, Washington

Lack of usability features

This question points to an issue concerning the lack of usability features in the planning and government documents inside our city halls. “Usability” refers to the ease and speed that specific content in a document is accessible (online or in print) and findable (in document design and content retrieval tools) for a wide audience—including government officials, staff, special interests, and most important—the general public.

Let’s face it. Government documents are cumbersome beasts to work with, even for a planning staff. Policy planners, consultants, and contributors to these documents are not at fault for this as much as the system of adopting policy and the highly technical nature of the content. Often the usability component of a document is overlooked, because administrators and consultants are occupied with project management, juggling content, motivating project teams and maintaining meeting schedules, public notifications, politics, and deadlines. True to form, this untimely discovery takes place way too late, after the budget is spent and staff is interacting with the content.

This usability issue is resolved with effective indexes, glossaries, abstracts, document design, and other helpful features that increase findability and maximize content retrieval.

The power of the index

is where the rubber meets the road in terms of serving as a time-saving tool and helping the planner on the job.”

Most readers are familiar with indexes but are unaware of their great potential as a usability tool. In conversations about user experiences, a story I hear repeatedly involves readers not paying attention to the index. Unless, of course, the readers become lost in a poorly written index and, as a result, are forced to bounce repeatedly between the index and the rest of the document.

Indexes are actually at their best when invisible. In other words, if readers are seamlessly pointed to content, then the index has done its job. Unfortunately, indexes are absent from most planning and government documents, especially at the local level. This is shocking, considering these are public documents that are typically content-heavy, very technical in nature, and driven by policies that shape the future of entire communities, cities, and regions.
Indexes are essentially the first hyperlinks; a quick reference tool providing multiple entry points to specific content. I refer to it as the “caboose” in any given document, located at the rear for purposes of quick and easy reference. When well-written, an index serves a wide audience by finding subject matter with relative ease. The effectiveness of an index is critical in the findability experience for a user, which in the case of detailed planning documents involves the lion’s share of content, data or graphic information not referenced in the broader strokes of the table of contents (TOC). This makes the index the most critical usability feature in a technical document such as a public plan or policy.

To be clear, an index is not “search,” nor does it operate like a search tool. Search involves a query using keywords and results in a listing determined by criteria from the search algorithm. An index is different from search by design; it does not trigger a listing based on keywords but contains detailed, context-oriented subentries to find specific content through page references. Indexes, which maximize findability and the user experience, are more time-saving than the basic search features found in PDFs and electronic media.

Planning and government documents serve a broad reading audience of decision-makers, staff, special interests, and the general public. Moreover, the index is where the rubber meets the road in terms of serving as a time-saving tool and helping the planner on the job. Imagine a scenario at the counter in city hall in which a planner needs to help a client, looking for specific content in a 400-page document. Would the client’s visit to city hall be necessary in the first place if the document was available online with a customized index?

At first glance indexes may appear basic or easy to write, and indeed, that is typical of simpler books and documentation that is lighter in content. However, indexes based on the structure of government documentation (how it typically involves policies, regulations, and codes) involve high complexity in content analysis, writing and editing. As one dives deeper into the various components of an index written for a specialized document, the level of detail involved in producing such a usability tool becomes apparent.

The glossary breaks through the jargon

translates planner-speak and industry jargon, in an effort to make the content less intimidating and understandable for the public.”

A glossary translates planner-speak and industry jargon to make content less intimidating and understandable for the public and a non-industry audience. As a common usability feature, glossaries inhabit some plans and policies; however their utilization and effectiveness can be spotty at best.

A glossary serves as an alphabetical listing of terms either newly introduced, uncommon or specialized for the document. As the vehicle to a common vocabulary, the glossary typically appears at the end of a document, before the index. An effective glossary results in a more informed target audience, maximizing the possible understanding of terminology throughout the document and aiding in a quicker grasp of its content.

Glossaries appear in many forms and styles, and may incorporate pronunciations or simply list a definition. Writing a glossary involves identifying terminology problematic to an unfamiliar audience; including but not limited to industry-specific words and phrases, policy lingo, acronyms and other jargon. It acts as one of many tools that work in both print and electronic platforms—helping to define content so an audience may maximize success with document navigation—improving findability and understanding.

Abstracts, other usability features and the importance of document design

Not only does the impact of design hover with the user through their entire interaction with the document, it frames the first impression and final determination of its usefulness.”

On the front end of interaction with a document, usability rests with the wording on the cover or title page. While making sense to staff or officials, not everyone in the public understands what titles like “comprehensive plan” or “capital facilities plan” represent in terms of the actual content in the body of the document. Abstracts serve as a solution by providing a condensed statement that explains a document’s purpose.

For greatest effectiveness, abstracts should be one of the first things an audience sees when they begin to interact with a document. In print and electronically, it should be either on the cover or title page of a document. By understanding the purpose of the document, the user will figure out if they actually need to interact with it. If they determine that the document in question is not the right resource, a simple graphic calling out the relationship with other in-house documents (a simple flowchart being a good example) points the user in the right direction. This is a fitting vignette in how different usability features, such as abstracts and graphic content, work together to enhance the user experience.

To many planners, the idea of including an abstract or graphic element on the cover of a government document may sound like a good way to muddy up a cover. The thought is front covers present an opportunity to “doll up” a read that isn’t exactly akin to a bedtime story. However, with proper placement, an abstract and graphic element may compliment other images, logos or branding on a cover; to the effect that the design, layout, and usability of a cover for a government document look absolutely stellar. You just need to be creative.

Graphic content includes graphs, charts, tables, photographs, illustrations and other visual elements in the body of a document. Another feature to consider, case studies bring clarity to complex content by using real-world examples that are understandable and provide qualitative descriptions that typically focus on a problem involving a group, or part of a group. Case studies should be highlighted in text boxes near the margins of a page, close enough for the eye to easily scan back and forth between the related content in the body of the text.

Document design includes the layout and how the content is presented, in addition to other components such as themes, styles and fonts. Design decisions in a document bear greatly on its usability; such as readability (left justification of content to make scanning easier), and the placement of graphic content (tables, diagrams, and images), to name a few. Besides indexing, document design is the most critical usability component due to its global effect on documentation — it has a bearing on every page beginning with the cover, front matter, the body of content, and the back matter—including the layout of the index. Not only does the impact of design hover with the user through their entire interaction with the document, it frames the first impression and final determination of its usefulness.

Resolving the conundrum

Without these usability features as part of government documents, limitations are imposed on the findability of the content within. Sadly, most planners have no idea the usability issue even exists until after the project is finished, and they find themselves helping a frustrated individual from the public locate subject then the clunky, time-consuming findability exercise ensues once again. This is frustrating for everyone involved and represents one of those vexing issues where many planners realize there’s a problem—but can’t necessarily identify it because they’re too deep in the weeds with other projects and overwhelmed on the job.

This is 100 percent an issue of usability, and the complex and heavy policy-oriented nature of content in government documents does not help matters. Most folks who aren’t planners or policy analysts would rather spend an afternoon at the dentist’s office than interface with a government document. Comprehensive plans, capital facilities plans, policy documents and the like can make a staff member’s head spin (especially a newbie in training at the counter) as much as the citizen who comes into city hall with an inquiry. This breakdown in lack of usability is a headache that’s plagued the public sector ever since, well, the public sector.

We all want accessible documents with findable content to make the day easier for staff and the broad audience of users in government and business, and the advantages to maximizing usability are far-reaching. Among other results, the goal of making content in plans and government documentation more usable for the public eases a planner’s day by freeing up staff time to concentrate on the many projects and deadlines for the planning commission and city council which makes the managers happy and then makes the elected officials happy.

Developing findable content requires a professional not only with experience and a level of acuity in the specific subject area (such as city planning) but someone also formally trained in writing usability tools such as indexes, glossaries, and abstracts. In the case of indexing specifically, a certified professional who understands the material builds entries for multiple access points to content and produces a camera-ready product that is finessed and readable.

In my experience with government agencies, they’re always trying to take an initiative to look at new and innovative ways to improve the user experience for the public. In-house plans and documents serve as part of that goal. While effective usability has the potential to appear in many forms and functions, at the end of the day it still provides the singular purpose of helping all readers access and find information in less time. Not only does a service side exist to this — but also an ethical side, if we look at the fundamental function of government — to effectively and efficiently serve the citizens who pay for it in the first place. That alone makes the conundrum worth resolving.

Paul Sweum, the Principal of Top Hat Word & Index, provides over two decades of professional technical communications and writing experience, including as an urban planning professional. As a usability specialist and certified indexer, he focuses on documentation for government, homeowner’s associations, business and publishing.

Published in the April/May 2016 issue of The Western Planner

Paul Moberly