Content Transparency: Can you see me now?

Welcome to the age of transparency

President Obama has promised “transparency” as a hallmark of his administration, which now publishes documents once consigned to darkness under rubrics of “executive priviliege” and “national security.” publishes datasets for people to analyze for themselves.  Daily legal battles are being waged to unveil monetary contributions to political campaigns. Public institutions—governmental, religious, and educational—are under scrutiny to reveal their inner workings. And on the other side of the line, privacy advocates argue that too much information is accessible, that we need better policies and procedures to protect personal information.

Just publishing information in the name of “openness,” however, does not guarantee transparency.

  • Politics and public relations are notorious for obfuscation, talking a lot and saying little.
  • Bureacracies are practically defined by legalese and impenetrable red tape.
  • Crisis communication (a.k.a., c.y.a.) repeats only the key messages again and again.
  • Credit card lenders are under attack for bewildering fine print and “hidden fees.”
  • Human resources policies, crafted by the legal department, are intentionally vague to allow managers “discretion” in whether to follow them or not: What you don’t understand may or may not be held against you.

Transparency builds public trust because we trust what we understand, and distrust what we cannot discern. Your content strategy must address the issues of transparency: What information will you make available to your audience, yes, but how will you ensure that they can grasp your meaning easily and completely?

The meaning of transparency

You will remember from elementary school that there are three degrees of transparency in materials:

  • Opaque,” which allow no light to pass through them at all;
  • Translucent,” which allow some light, but no detail; and
  • Transparent,” which are perfectly clear, allowing all light to pass.

In other words, “transparent” means “see-through.”

Transparency in content doesn’t just mean “tell me,” but rather, “tell me in a way that lets me ‘see through’ what you’re saying.” Achieving transparency means helping people to grasp the fullness of what you say. It means finding the right words, in the right order, and with just the right illustration to make a situation, a policy, or a process “clear.”

Transparency in content and design

Transparent content is a lot like transparent interaction or experience design. A good interface requires no explanation. We say that it is “transparent” when it communicates itself nonverbally to the user. Users can tell intuitively where they are, where they’ve been, and where they can go next. They get regular feedback on their actions and have some preview of what their next action will produce.

Transparency in content means that users understand not only what the content says, but also why it’s saying it, and where it fits in the overall context of the rest of the content. Transparent content doesn’t make you wonder, “Why are you telling me this?” Transparent content doesn’t require indepth knowledge of the organization that produced it. Transparent content conveys itself in natural sequence in the language appropriate to the audience.

Usability testing for content transparency

When we think about testing designs for usability, we mostly imagine checking the site navigation and underlying information architecture, as well as the interactions. We test whether users can find certain information and complete their tasks.

It’s essential, however, to test your content as well. Reading comprehension, ease of visual scanning, ability to concentrate on the content without other distractions…these goals come as much from the disciplines of educational testing and instructional design as from engineering. After all, it is entirely possible to succeed in your architecture and interactions, yet still leave your users in the dark: Yes, they found where the information should be, and yes, they can made the process work, but they still have no idea what it meant or what they really did.

Testing content usability must be done in the prototyping phase, which means that your prototype must be populated with the real thing.

[Just a few] Barriers to content transparency

Dense, unstructured, unformatted text

Pages that are full of text, especially technical, poorly written text, are completely opaque. Pick almost any press release from any corporate website. Designed for the newspaper, the press release requires an absolute commitment from the reader to plow through it to see what it says. If you have to invest “quality time” with a web page to understand what it says, then it’s not transparent.

Monkeys typing randomly in hopes of Shakespeare

When the content is left to the end of the project, when no one really “owns” it, and when we use text as a “spacer” to nudge the images into the right places, then the content is meaningless and probably won’t be read, let alone understood. You must—MUST—have skilled writers and editors, expert crafters in their discipline, who are dedicated to the clarity (usability) of the written word. There is no such thing as “filler content.” Either it supports the users’ information needs, or it doesn’t. If text doesn’t contribute to user goals, then it has no place in your site.

We all know what this means!

It is common wisdom among writers to “know your audience,” yet content still shows up all over the web written from an internal, organizational, technical perspective. Worse, having done no research at all, we still feel confident that users flocking to our website already know what this content is about.

Hapless readers and users of this information can have the best intentions of plowing through the reading, yet unless they have direct experience of the organizational structure or the minds behind the content, they won’t have enough context to grasp its meaning or importance.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on passing content around to colleagues (Worse: Executives. WORST: Legal!) for feedback. Only your users are qualified to judge the transparency of your content.

Inappropriate techno-psycho-babble

On the heels of “know your audience,” however, it is imperative to strike the right balance of language. You must speak your users’ language fluently, and they must speak yours. To be transparent, content must use the appropriate vocabulary, tone, expressions, and humor for the audience. And don’t be deceived: They can always spot a non-native speaker.

Corporate speak: Losing the human voice

If you haven’t yet read The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, or visited their website (, then it’s high time you did. In the age of content transparency, users have learned to ignore whatever has not been spoken by a true, human voice. The bland, faceless, toneless language known as “corporate speak” has no power but the power to repel. To be transparent, your content must speak directly to human users with a human voice.

Not answering your users’ questions FIRST

Users come to websites because they need to do something, find something, check something, or learn something. They come with questions already in mind or problems to solve, even if they’ve simply stumbled upon your site. The instant they arrive, new questions start forming in their minds. These questions form a Mazlow-ian hierarchy of needs, and transparent content answers these questions first. Only when users have addressed their immediate concerns can you hope to show them more content to take them further.

Self-serving organizational promotions, sales pitches, onsite advertising, pop-up surveys, and all the other barriers mentioned above only create piles of extra **** that the most committed user must dig through to find their answers.

A little bit of user research can discover the most frequent, most basic issues users bring to you, in the most natural sequence, and you can build your content strategy to address those first. Now, some of this transparency is accomplished through the information architecture of your site: Making things findable is the first leg of the race, but how you compose, arrange, and format your content will carry the baton the rest of the way.

Transparency as a content strategy goal

Setting a strategic goal for transparency involves decisions about what you reveal to your users, but also about how you will help your users “see through what you say” to what they need to know. You must discover not only what your users need to know and understand about your content, but also what they know (or believe!) already. Taking into consideration where your users are beginning, the jargon they speak, the basic questions they’re trying to answer, and their expectations of your site will all contribute to the site’s overall transparency and success.

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.


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