Structuring Information Plainly

The three goals of content structure

If you’ll remember the definition in my first blog of this series, plain language communication makes it easy for people to:

  1. Find the information they need.
  2. Understand the information.
  3. Put that information to use.

Source: Plain Language Association International. (2021). What is plain language?

You might assume that how your piece of writing is organized only addresses point 1, but it actually applies to all of the points. It is not enough to help people find the information they need. By organizing the information well, we also make it easier for them to understand the information and put it to use.

Choose the best logic

An effective audience analysis helps you choose the best logic for structuring the content. To do this well, you must put yourself in the position of a person looking for information and keep in mind differing needs.

The best structures are intuitive. We only need to read a couple headings and we immediately understand how the information is organized. This is because it follows a clear logic, such as the steps in a larger task or the components of a system. Information can also be organized chronologically, alphabetically, or as frequently asked questions. There are many possibilities.

Be consistent and cross reference

In the real world with complex topics and readers, it is seldom possible to find a content structure that suits everyone. That’s okay. It’s enough to have a clear system and be consistent.

You can use cross references to address unique needs or create an extra topic if needed.  Sometimes it is useful to list Related Topics at the end of each section.

Make the content scannable

There are other things to keep in mind when designing the structure of information. Especially when the information is online, it needs to be scannable. When they are looking for answers, people do not read from left to right. They read from the top to the bottom. Make sure the headings tell a complete story on their own. Ensure that the first few words of every paragraph clearly direct readers to the information you will provide.

Also, don’t save the best for last. Within each content chunk, start with the most important message or the conclusion. Then explain how you got there. This helps people understand the content more quickly. Those who are in a hurry may only read the first sentence or two in each section.

Layer content

Experienced writers do everything they can to address multiple levels of knowledge. They focus on the basics, but offer resources for those who want to know more.

When there is more than one user group, they design the content to allow every group easy and logical access to the information. Sometimes it helps to have a roadmap topic that gives each user group tips for navigating the content. If the content is published online in chunks, it may even be possible to construct separate bundles for each user group.

Test your design

The best way to ensure that you have designed the most effective content structure is to test it. Once you have an outline, send it to a small group of potential readers and ask for feedback. Better yet, present them with a problem or a task, and ask them which heading would include the information they need.

This is time well spent

I often find that this step in content development is the most challenging.  Organizing content effectively takes analysis and creativity, but most of all it takes a deep commitment to helping people.

Remember, the goal is not only to enable people to easily find the information they need. We want to empower them to understand the information and use it too.

© Debbie Bateman 2021. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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