Plain English for corporate intranet content

At work, I teach a course on writing for the intranet. It takes an afternoon and covers online writing and editing techniques, SEO, how to handle graphics and accessibility. I also touch on writing in plain English. For this part of the course I usually use the latest IT announcement as a demonstration. IT announcements highlight how not to write plain English. Right on the button. Every time. Guaranteed.

While useful for my course, it always annoys me that people from this department (who now call themselves ICT, the C for communication!) often fail to think about the people they are writing for. Their audience is the whole organisation, yet they write from their own point of view, using acronyms, technical jargon and internal project and process language.

So here’s our latest announcement. I’ve colour-coded it to help with my analysis:

Important Windows XP and Office Security Patches will be available to all workstations on your IT network from 4th October. This is part of an ongoing process to ensure all IT equipment is secure and to minimize the risk from computer viruses.

 What do you need to do?

You are advised to manually install these updates onto your desktop PC as soon as they are available. This is a simple process that will only take a few minutes of your time. For instructions on how to manually apply these security updates please click here.

If you are unable to apply these patches for whatever reason, they will be automatically applied to your workstation overnight 9th October, 20:00. However, we do advise you to manually apply these updates where possible.

Switching off your workstations

To ensure the security updates are correctly applied, you must restart your desktop PC after installation. This can be done when you shut down your PC at the end of the working day. Users are reminded that it is recommended that they ‘Shut Down’ their PC at the end of every working day – see below.

To shut down your PC, click on the ‘Start’ button and choose the ‘Shut Down’ option. Please remember to switch off your monitor as it is not switched off automatically by ‘Shut Down’. Some monitors have a very subtle ‘on/off’ switch that is flat and touch sensitive and located on the underside of the bottom right corner of the monitor; the blue light will be steady or flash until the monitor is switched-off.

Remote Workers

It is recommended that remote workers are onsite and logged in to their workstations when the Security Patchesare being applied. If this is not possible then the patches will be available remotely, however the update may take a little longer.


It is clear that the writer has no audience in mind. The piece switches from talking to me directly, to speaking about users, to some invisible person who isn’t specified because of using passive voice (“this can be done…”)

The message is inconsistent, taking ages to tell me how to shut down my PC but making me follow a link for the actual instructions to download the update, which is the point of the announcement. There’s a line that reads *see below*, below meaning the next sentence? And then there’s just plain daft stuff like recommending that I’m logged on to my workstation to download and install the udpate. No, really?

The message is mixed. Along the lines of “we have an update, you can download it yourself, or it will install automatically if you don’t, but, you know, you can do it yourself if you want.” Why not just install the update on my machine automatically and not bother me with having to read through this tripe? Is it that important that I know that this technical maintenance is going on?

The colour-coded headings below refer to the coloured sections in the original announcement.

Passive voice

I can spot passive voice a mile off. Years of editing online content tends to drum it into you. And there is a very good reason that IT people use it. To appear distant, to avoid the issue, to misdirect attention. Better for speech-writers and spin doctors. On the intranet, we want to get the point across quickly and clearly. Passive voice clouds the issue causing the brain to fire internal questions trying to fill in the gaps due to missing information in the text.


When We Capitalise The First Letter In Each Word It Makes It Really Hard To Read.

While not so bad in this IT announcement, you’ll often find capitalised project names, department names, process names and technical terms. In this announcement, what is so important about security patches or remote workers that they deserve capitalisation?

Bad names for links

Seeing a *click here* makes my blood boil. It is wrong for so many reasons. Staff using screenreaders will often request the software to group and read out all links on the page. Hearing click here, click here, more info, find out more, is not helpful. Similarly when the search engine reads the page and follows a *click here* link it does not help. It just registers a great page in the search index called “click here” that everyone is linking to. Even for staff who can see the page, it’s not clear from the link text what you will get if you click it. Link text should always accurately describe the target destination.


Important corporate announcements should just give me the facts. Not self-promotional fluff. I don’t need to know that what they are asking me to do is part of their ongoing process. And apologies to my non-English-writing readers, but there is a Z where there shouldn’t be.

Content rewrite

Instructions for how to download and install an update, including how to shut down your PC are already available elsewhere on the intranet. Assuming that the IT department can’t automate the updates, here’s how I would rewrite the announcement:

Important Windows XP and Office updates for your workstation will be available from 4th October
What do you need to do?
You can install the updates yourself. Read instructions on how to install the updates.

If you can’t do this yourself, we’ll update your workstation automatically at 20:00 on 9th October.

Remote workers
You’ll find it faster to install the update if you login while on site. You can still update remotely but it will take longer.


I know what I’m talking about here isn’t so important in the greater scheme of the workings of the organisation. But by taking just a few minutes to stop and think about what we are writing, we can help staff to save time in reading and understanding the finished piece. My rewritten example is shorter and clearer. The simple instructions makes it easier (and more likely) for staff to carry out the task. I have cut down the original announcement from 302 words to 78 words. With online corporate content, less is more.

Intranet redesign, Phase 5: migration, content freeze, dual publishing

The end is in sight

Remember that migration plan from phase 2? Having decided to publish back-issues of news stories to the start of 2009, I could quantify how much content we would need to migrate. I managed to cut the original content from 6416 entries down to 3000 entries. Some of this was by losing older news stories. The remainder I did by reorganising content into simplified chunks. Where a section had dozens of one-paragraph pages, I grouped and combined them into fewer pages. I removed out of date content. Cut out duplicated content. Barred the *what’s this doing on the intranet?* content.

So it was at this point in the project, around September 2009, that we agreed on an unofficial launch date of 1st January 2010. We reckoned we could populate the new intranet in that time. We would divert all our attention to the migration and bat off any new development work.

Migration checklist

We pulled a few extra resources from the web team to help out with migration. We had hands-on training for the CMS publishing and strict rules on page titles, metadata and file names.

I shared the master migration plan with the team through Google Docs which worked wonders for collaborating on our progress, showing up to the minute changes and no document check-out and check-in. Meh!

Content freeze

We announced a moratorium on intranet updates with the exception of corporate news and features and urgent ministerial and board messages.

Curious to note that having announced a content freeze, intranet content owners who had not done anything with their content for months and months suddenly wanted to update their pages. Don’t you love human nature?

Dual publishing

Because we had agreed to continue to publish news stories, I divided the migration work amongst the team with one person responsible for publishing ongoing news onto the existing intranet and also entering into the CMS for the new intranet. We had a few people working on news story back-issues. And a few working from the existing Dreamweaver content, manually building the green, blue and purple sections of the site.

Migration production line

Cut and paste. Cut and paste. Robot-like for weeks. The migration team laboured on. The traffic lights on our Google Docs spreadsheet slowly changed from red to green. We took this chance to do a little editorial work on pages as we moved them across, rewriting in plain English and reformatting pages to improve readability. I was also keeping an eye on our Google Search Appliance as it indexed the migrated content. Up and up went the page count. Perfect page titles all round!

A URL was leaked at some point and from studying Google Analytics I could see that there were about 60 people around the organisation looking at the new site before it was officially launched. I’m glad they were that interested!

Communications and launch

In my next post I’ll cover how we worked with our internal communications colleagues to prepare staff for the new intranet and how we have evaluated and evolved the intranet since launch.
In this series

Intranet redesign, Phase 2: information architecture and content audit

Back in the good old days when the IT department allowed me to use DOS (the operating system that I was brought up on,) I managed to do some jiggery-pokery and get a complete intranet file-listing. And a few deft keystrokes later, I was spreadsheet-a-go-go.


Content audit

My previous analysis already told me what was popular content on the intranet. The spreadsheet gave me the complete picture and what kind of state it was in, structurally.

Using our Google Search Appliance, I also generated a listing of all content that Google thought was on the intranet (having crawled from the homepage.) The resultant list contained 6416 entries (HTML, DOC, XLS, PDF) and was a fraction of the DOS listing, meaning that the webserver was filled with rubbish, albeit invisible to staff.

I then spent a long time sifting and sorting, grouping and batching, slicing and hacking. By the end, I had a good idea of what I was dealing with and what would make it into the final mix.

Top-level navigation

I decided that I could group the whole of the intranet into just 4 main sections. Big change. Big simplification. What I didn’t know for certain was what I was going to call these sections. So, with the core team, we came up with a good handful of ideas for the names of each of the 4 sections.

I started involving staff with an online, closed cardsort using all of our ideas for names. I invited staff from all over the organisation to take part. I tested a representative selection of all intranet content. The tests worked by showing the participant an intranet page or document and asking them which of 4 boxes they would put it in. Each question tested one section and the 4 boxes were labelled with a selection of names for that section.

I wanted to test a lot of content, against a lot of possible names with a lot of people, online. I had to find a way to distribute many smaller tests, testing different variations of sections with content while keeping the number of questions to a minimum, to encourage staff to complete the test. I was also working with a webserver with no coding capability (PHP or ASP). So I developed a simple set of HTML pages, which linked from question to question while passing the chosen answers to Google Analytics. I’d be able to filter the analytics for the test questions and answers.

For the intial test page which all participants landed on, I used Google Website Optimiser, setting up an A/B test which redirected participants to one of 12 different pages. Each of the 12 pages started an individual test containing 20 questions. The purpose of Website Optimiser is usually to find the best combination of elements or wording on a page to drive a particular outcome. In this instance, I just took advantage of Website Optimiser’s method of evenly distributing tests.

We advertised for participants across our family of intranets and got a really great response.

Cardsorting stats

Google Analytics report showing bursts of cardsorting activity during 2009
Google Analytics report showing bursts of cardsorting activity during 2009

I like looking back on these analytics. During the online cardsorting sessions I covered over 1000 content items and got nearly 36,000 individual responses. The first batch of tests was in February, designed to elicit our main navigation labels. Subsequent tests then checked that the chosen names would suit all the intranet content. It was a much larger set of tests, again using Website Optimiser for distribution and Google Analytics to capture results.

The Test Tube advert
The Test Tube advert

The “Test tube advert”

I attribute the success of the number of responses partially to the advert that I designed to entice staff to take the test. The advert lets people know what to expect: answer 20 questions. The text acknowledges that people would be supporting us in taking the test and also mentions that this is the second round of tests. There was no first round of tests; the line is there to give a sense of having missed out on something. I also chose *experiments* which I felt was slightly more sexy than *tests*. A bold, clear call to action encourages a click, and the test tubes are just dripping.

Cardsorting results

The stats from the cardsorting gave a clear visual indication of success or failure. Here is an example of results for a single card with the option of 4 placements (boxes). This card got 334 responses with nearly 80% concurrence of opinion. I tested iteratively until I was confident that everything fitted and would work well with staff.

Google Analytics results for a single card
Google Analytics results for a single card

Remaining information architecture

After the cardsorting exercises were finished I then got to work on creating the master IA for the intranet, creating the secondary and subsequent navigation levels. I could then map the initial intranet structure to the newly created structure, producing the content migration plan, ready for phase 5 of the project.

IA is such an important step in any web or intranet development project. And it is important that it is done early in the project, before any page layout or visual design.

In this series

  1. Research, surveys and brief
  2. Information architecture and content audit
  3. Wireframe designs and user testing
  4. Visual design, HTML and CMS build
  5. Migration, content freeze/dual publishing
  6. Communications, launch and evaluation

The intranet police are out to get you

If you intend to put content on our intranet; watch out because the intranet police are scouring the pages when you’re not looking.

Reading your content, filled with passive voice, determined to hide any true meaning. Surfacing your documents, still labelled with a template name that was in use 5 years ago. Routing out pages that have one sentence saying “information will be published soon.” Looking at analytics to see if anyone is reading your content. Searching for your pages to see if they appear in search results. Questioning the vanity pages that serve no purpose but self promotion. Gutting out your microsites filled with “what we do, how we do it, why we do it, when we do it, you can do it, help us do it.”

To staff: all this we do for you. So that you don’t have to spend time wading through intranet goo. So that you can find what you want using the search engine.

To content providers: we can only do this by constantly and consistently promoting our intranet standards when working with you. Sorry if we sound tough, negative or difficult. Your job may be to put something on the intranet because your manager has asked you to. Our job is to make sure that it is suitable for publishing on the intranet. Please don’t hate us when we return a document to you because you didn’t fill out the metadata or because you keep saying “click here.” We showed you how to do this. You understood why you have to do this. Please don’t expect us to do it for you.

Your humble servants

the intranet police
watching you, watching us, watching them


Intranet bloggers psychographic analysis

I stumbled upon, a website that reads your blog and produces a psychographic analysis.  Always one for a cosmo quiz, I fed it my blog and was amazed at the results.  And the in-depth entry for the psychological type in wikipedia was even more accurate.  
The analysis uses the “Myers-Briggs type indicator” (MBTI) system, which is based on 16 psychological types, similar to the psychometric testing that was popular in job interviews in the 90s.
I analysed the blogs of some of my favourite intranet tweeps.  Out of the 16 possible types, we fell into 5 categories as outlined below (MBTI type shown in brackets.)  The typealyzer website analyses writing style and voice and is not an official MBTI test, where you have to fill out a multiple choice test and pay for it, or go for a job interview.

Type: Scientists (INTJ)The long-range thinking and individualistic type. They are especially good at looking at almost anything and figuring out a way of improving it – often with a highly creative and imaginative touch. They are intellectually curious and daring, but might be physically hesitant to try new things.The Scientists enjoy theoretical work that allows them to use their strong minds and bold creativity. Since they tend to be so abstract and theoretical in their communication they often have a problem communicating their visions to other people and need to learn patience and use concrete examples. Since they are extremely good at concentrating they often have no trouble working alone.

(Jane McConnellJames Robertson, Alex Manchester, Wedge, Sean Nicholson, Bas Zurburg, Luke Oatham)

Type: Duty fulfillers (ISTJ)

The responsible and hardworking type. They are especially attuned to the details of life and are careful about getting the facts right. Conservative by nature they are often reluctant to take any risks whatsoever.

The Duty Fulfillers are happy to be let alone and to be able to work in their own pace. They know what they have to do and how to do it.

(Gerry McGovernMark MorrellValerie Hoven, Nic Price)

Type: Executives (ENTJ)

The direct and assertive type. They are especially attuned to the big picture and how to get things done. They are talented strategic planners, but might come off as insensitive to others needs and appear arrogant. They like to be where the action is and like making bold and sweeping changes in complex situations.

The Executives are happy when their work lets them learn and improve themselves and how things work around them. Not being very shy about expressing their ideas and often very outgoing they often make excellent public speakers.

(Peter Richards)

Type: Thinkers (INTP)

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

(Richard Hare)

Type: Guardians (ESTJ)

The organizing and efficient type. They are especially attuned to setting goals and managing available resources to get the job done. Once they have made up their mind on something, it can be quite difficult to convince otherwise. They listen to hard facts and can have a hard time accepting new or innovative ways of doing things.

The Guardians are often happy working in highly structured work environments where everyone knows the rules of the job. They respect authority and are loyal team players.

(Toby Ward)

Blog analysis courtesy of
Wikipedia entry on Myers-Briggs type indicator