By: Kate Saul, 8/14/23


As state teams well know, the landscape of Unemployment Insurance (UI) is complex. This complexity introduces and exacerbates equity issues for claimants and can increase claimants’ potential for making errors on their applications, increasing state teams’ workloads. Because of these challenges, it’s imperative that states create UI content – initial application forms, weekly certification forms, notices of all sorts, and web content, among other types – using plain language.  

Creating plain-language content is a necessary step in improving the customer experience of UI services and products, and state teams are hard at work writing new content (and revising existing content) to ensure its readability. Because of the volume of content most states are dealing with, however, and due to states’ lack of dedicated content strategists and designers, many states have partnered with or will partner with vendor teams to complete their content work. To ensure consistent quality across different content types, channels, or artifacts, states need some guidelines for content creation and revision. 

We’ve created this document for states to use in their content engagements with vendor teams. It outlines how we define plain language, resources we use as we’re writing new – or editing existing – content, and some traits we look for in the teams we work with. 

This is a living document, and we’ll add to it as we incorporate more resources into our library. To provide transparency around updates made to this document, we’ll amend the “last updated” date at the top of the post. And, as always, we love feedback from states – if your state team would like to see additional sections added to this document, please let us know. 

Our approach to plain language 

Although there’s not just one definition of plain language, defines the concept as “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.” Note that this definition specifies “your audience” -- plain language itself varies based on the audience it’s intended for. Because we’re creating content to be read by UI claimants and potential claimants (a very large and diverse group of readers), we’ve added some additional characteristics to our definition of plain language, captured in the following list. 

We’d like to stress the fact that plain language involves much more than just (re)writing content; it requires developing a deep understanding of one’s audience and their needs, conducting UX research (including usability testing) to identify ways to improve content, revising content to reflect opportunities surfaced by research, and maintaining content to ensure its continued accuracy and relevance.  

Bearing all that in mind, we define plain language as follows: ​ 

  • It’s understandable to most readers: We strive to keep our content at an eighth-grade reading level or lower, and we organize content in a way that reflects our users’ mental models of Unemployment Insurance. To validate that our content makes sense to users, we usability test our content with actual claimants. ​ 
  • It avoids jargon: Unless legally required, our content doesn’t include jargon or legal terminology. If we are legally required to include terms that may not be clear to our readers, we’ll provide contextual definitions or help. ​ 
  • It’s actionable: Readers will know, after first reading, what they need to do and the steps they need to take to accomplish a task, as well as the timeframe within which they need to complete that task.  
  • It’s welcoming: We address the reader as “you,” consistently use a friendly, helpful voice, and follow other stylistic considerations promoted by and the 18F Content Guide, which are used and trusted by agencies across the federal government.  ​ 
  • It’s accurate:  Our content precisely communicates concepts related to Unemployment Insurance, along with applicable laws, regulations, and expectations. 

Our resources 

We’ve relied on (and continue to use) the following resources as we’ve worked with states to create new and revise existing content. Although we don’t have our own content style guide, we draw on the 18F Content Guide for strategic and stylistic guidance. Similarly, we rely heavily on, which is maintained by an unfunded group of federal employees whose goal is to promote the use of plain language across government. and the 18F Content Guide are well established content resources within the federal government and have inspired many agencies’ specific guidance and approaches. It’s worth noting that the principles and recommendations in 18F’s guide have undergone extensive testing with end users (via various engagements 18F conducted with federal agencies).  

The other resources on this list supplement our usage of and the 18F Content Guide. The U.S. Web Design System provides comprehensive documentation about design components and patterns (and proper usage) and can be especially useful as a tool for interface writing. On our Reference Site, we’ve published several UI-specific resources, including a UI Lexicon (definitions of the top 20 most frequently used terms across all states’ UI sites), the Plain language repository (a collection of notices and letters we’ve rewritten in plain language), a plain language checklist, and high-level governance documentation.  

As we continue to incorporate new resources into our content practice, we’ll update this list. If your team is using plain-language resources that you'd like to see added to this list, please reach out -- we'd love to hear more about your process and tools.