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Finding Empathy for Users: A Plain Language Model

In their bestselling book on developing memorable ideas, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss what they named the “curse of knowledge”: once you know something it’s difficult to remember what life is like without knowing it.

As a UX expert, you possess a wide array of knowledge and experiences that allow you to help improve your clients’ products and even their processes. You conduct tests, observations, and analyses to create interfaces that align with users’ goals and expectations. You help interfaces go from good to great and from great to spectacular. On the surface your knowledge is a reliable meal ticket rather than a curse.

Yet, sometimes it is difficult to get feedback from users; sometimes the subject matter is especially complex; sometimes your status as an expert and your familiarity with the situation you face hinder you from effectively identifying with the audience of users. Knowledge can be, if not a curse, then at least an obstacle.

To better empathize with those who use your clients’ tools, documents, or systems, you need to look past your own knowledge and experiences to get to their perspective. I have developed a framework with the acronym BUROC (pronounced byoo-rok) that helps communicators identify opportunities to use plain language. The BUROC model can help UX designers develop more empathy for users—and develop a strategy for reaching them.

UX and Plain Language

Plain language is an approach to communication that focuses on using language that is familiar and understandable to the audience. Plain language advocates frequently work in fields such as health literacy that involve frequent work with everyday citizens, in government agencies, and in the legal field. Many people who work in usability and UX design are also advocates for plain language.

Plain language advocates and UX designers all share a focus on helping people get the information they need, whether from documents, websites, or other systems. According to the Center for Plain Language, a U.S. nonprofit that advocates for plain language in government and business, “A document, website, or other information is in plain language if the target audience can read it, understand what they read, and confidently act on it.” Plain language experts are as concerned about the vocabulary used in a set of information as they are about the layout of the information and the appropriateness of the images on the page or screen. In short, plain language is usable language.

Two examples from federal court rules come from Professor Joseph Kimble of Thomas Cooley School of Law. The first is from the Federal Rules of Evidence, while the second is from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Note that each plain-language example is shorter than the legalese version.


A statement from Federal Rules of Evidence about whether religious beliefs should affect a witness’s credibility, before and after it was written in plain language:


Evidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature the witness’ credibility is impaired or enhanced.


Evidence of a witness’s religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness’s credibility.



A statement from Federal Rules of Civil Procedure about pleadings, before and after it was written in plain language:


When two or more statements are made in the alternative and one of them, if made independently would be sufficient, the pleading is not made insufficient by the insufficiency of one or more of the alternative statements.


If a party made alternative statements, the pleading is sufficient if any one of them is sufficient.


The BUROC Model

The BUROC model provides one way to identify situations in which plain language can benefit readers. BUROC situations are important because of the challenges they present to people who need to acquire information and then act on it. The more a situation reflects the qualities in the BUROC model, and the more of those individual qualities it reflects, the more people in that situation are likely to benefit from plain, everyday language.

  • B is for bureaucratic. These situations involve some kind of bureaucracy in a large organization or a combination of them; layers of policies, procedures, and approvals affect individuals’ access to what they need or want. The bureaucracy’s public façade often keeps outsiders distant and limits their access to information. These situations are complex, they may require a lot of time to resolve, and they may occur over days, weeks, or months.
  • U is for unfamiliar. People face these situations rarely or infrequently. They require people to use vocabulary, policies, and even buildings or equipment that they don’t know well. These situations may be unfamiliar because of their complexity, or they may be unfamiliar because they require people to use a language not native to them.
  • R-O is for rights-oriented. These situations are especially important because they affect individuals’ choices to act within their rights as citizens, as patients, as consumers, as humans.
  • C is for critical. These situations are serious; people should not regard them lightly; they can have significant consequences. These situations often arise without warning, and they may require urgent decisions or actions. The stress of these situations can affect a person’s judgment, cognition, and performance.

People going through BUROC situations may feel stress or anxiety. They may be dealing with uncomfortable situations. They may have to use languages other than their native tongues, or they might face pressure to act quickly. Signing a lease or contract, giving consent for medical treatment, obtaining a mortgage, casting a vote in an election—these are just a few of the BUROC situations people face every day.

Plain language can help people facing BUROC situations feel more at ease, understand more about their situations, and make decisions more confidently. To channel the words of Don’t Make Me Think author Steve Krug, users—especially those facing BUROC situations—don’t want to overthink when using a website or some software; they want to act.

An example BUROC situation

Within the past year or so, I faced a minor BUROC situation. While it was not a critical situation, it was bureaucratic, unfamiliar, and rights-oriented. I wanted to contact my city’s code enforcement office to register a complaint about a problem with a property in my neighborhood.

I went to the city’s website and searched for “code enforcement” but found nothing. I eventually figured out the name of the organization in the city’s bureaucracy that handles code enforcement duties and found it on the website: the planning and zoning department.

The city’s website is largely arranged in separate sections for each office within the bureaucracy. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the name of the department I needed, and the vocabulary for what I wanted to do did not match the terms in use on the website. I just wanted to exercise one of my rights as a citizen, but I was not initially successful.

After my experience, however, I contacted the city’s web team about my problems finding “code enforcement” on the site. I am happy to say that now when I search for “code enforcement” on the city’s site, several related keyword phrases appear in the list, and I can easily find the form for reporting code violations.

Applying Empathy in Design

When you empathize with the users of a website or system, you see things from their perspectives and not just your own. Through empathy, you can realize that not everyone knows who does what or what goes where in an organization. Not everyone knows the jargon, buzzwords, and insider lingo.

Imagine yourself in a BUROC situation

Say that you have received a call about a problem with one of your financial accounts, and that you must meet with someone about it in a large, distant place. Think about how bewildering it can be to enter a large place for the first time: a hospital, a school campus, a skyscraper, or even a shopping mall. Imagine that you find the office you need after searching for 30 minutes. Once in the office, you receive a stack of papers to fill out and policies to agree to. These documents use a strange mashup of your native language and complex financial terms. You ask, and the person behind the desk says it is “Financialese.” You ask what a certain section of a contract means, and you are told, “Yes means yes, and no means no.” You fill out as much of the paperwork as you can, and then you go in to meet with an account manager. The account manager speaks to you in Financialese, pointing at parts of your paperwork. Confused, you nod and occasionally say “OK” in response. At the end, the account manager shows you the door. You ask if your money is still safe. “Pending 30 days in escrow and 0.5 percent account maintenance premium deduction, funds will be available for use,” she says.

This imaginary BUROC situation is a mashup of common scenarios people face. Perhaps you felt frustrated as you imagined yourself inside it? Maybe you thought, “Where are the signposts? Where is the glossary? Don’t they know that hardly anyone speaks Financialese?” Now you are empathizing with someone facing a BUROC situation.

Make starting easy

If you must build a site around abureaucracy or big organization—such as a municipal government site or a site for a university—realize that outsiders often don’t know where to go or how to start.. Keep the users’ goals in mind; give them obvious ways to start and complete the tasks that they want to complete. Many university homepages, for example, provide groups of links for some of their most common visitors, such as current students, prospective students, faculty and staff, and fans of athletic programs.

Use everyday language

When the language or the concepts will be unfamiliar, use plain, everyday language that people already use. For example, to connect students to a payments and disbursements office, create index links with terms such as “view my accounts” or “pay my bill.” Another approach could involve having students answer a series of questions and guiding them to particular resources based on their answers.

Facilitate decision making

Allow people to exercise their rights to make decisions about issues that affect their lives. Provide interfaces that let them compare options. Provide links to information that makes them fully aware of the consequences of one choice over another. Don’t limit their choices simply for expediency.

Think outside your organization

Critical issues have serious weight for people dealing with them. It has been said about surgery that the only minor surgery is one that isn’t being performed on you; when it affects you directly, it’s not minor. Similarly, your client organizations commonly deal with big issues like insurance claims, approvals for medical procedures, and financial aid awards, but the users seldom face them. And when they do face them, users may be under stress, confused, or afraid of mistakes.


The next time you’re working on a project for a broad audience of consumers or citizens, think about the BUROC model. Ask yourself if the bureaucratic nature of the client organization might be confusing; think about how often users are likely to have used a specific site or faced a certain situation; think about how deeply the situation affects them as opposed to the client organization. When people face big issues and important decisions, plain language in a document or on a screen can help them do what best serves their interests.


More Reading

Before-and-after example of a medical consent form


사람들이 큰 문제와 중요한 결정에 직면한 경우에는 평이한 언어가 그들에게 최선인 것을 할 수 있도록 도와줄 수 있습니다. “BUROC” 모델은 정보가 관료적이거나 낯설거나 권력지향적이거나 대단히 중요하기 때문에, 사람들이 그 정보를 구하여 그에 따라 행동해야 할 때 평이한 언어가 독자에게 도움을 줄 수 있는 상황을 찾아내는 데 도움이 됩니다. 이 모델은 당신이 웹사이트 이용자나 시스템 사용자들과 공감하고, 당신의 시각이 아니라 사용자들의 시각에서 볼 수 있도록 도와줍니다. 전체기사는영어로만제공됩니다.

Quando as pessoas enfrentam grandes problemas e decisões importantes, a linguagem simples pode ajudá-las a fazer o que é melhor para elas. O modelo “BUROC” ajuda a identificar situações em que a linguagem simples pode beneficiar leitores, quando as pessoas precisam obter informações e tomar as ações necessárias, porque as informações são burocráticas, desconhecidas, baseadas em direitos ou críticas. O modelo pode ajudá-lo a identificar-se com os usuários de um website ou sistema e a observar as coisas com uma perspectiva dos usuários e não apenas com a sua.  O artigo completo está disponível somente em inglês.


Cuando las personas se enfrentan a grandes problemas y decisiones importantes, un lenguaje sencillo puede ayudarlas a tomar la mejor opción. El modelo “BUROC” ayuda a identificar situaciones en las que el lenguaje sencillo puede beneficiar a los lectores que necesitan adquirir información y luego actuar en consecuencia, cuando la información es burocrática, poco conocida, está orientada a los derechos o es crítica. El modelo ayuda a empatizar con los usuarios de una web o sistema y ver las cosas desde su perspectiva, no solo desde la propia.  La versión completa de este artículo está sólo disponible en ingles