Avoid Jargon When Writing Web Content

August 11, 2022

When you’re writing content online, word choice is important. Plain language is usually the best tool for getting your message across — and ensuring that your content is accessible for all readers. 

Jargon refers to words, phrases, or expressions that are commonly used inside of a group or profession. Here are a few examples of jargon with quick definitions:

  • Bandwidth - A team or individual’s ability to handle work. We don’t have the bandwidth for new clients right now. 
  • Throughput - Commonly used in manufacturing, this describes the amount of materials passing through a system in a certain amount of time. We need to improve throughput to meet our goals. 
  • AWOL - Military jargon that means “absent without leave.” He went AWOL after receiving his assignment.

Every group and profession uses specialized terms and expressions (including the digital accessibility community). However, jargon can make content less useful for a general audience by creating unnecessary barriers for readers.

How Jargon Affects Accessibility

By nature, jargon restricts your reach. Few readers want to learn highly specific terminology while browsing the internet, and studies show that most people scan across content looking for key points of interest. Jargon can make your text less scannable (and therefore less effective).

Additionally, some disabilities can also make it difficult to understand specialized words, and if a visitor doesn’t speak the native language of your website, they may be unfamiliar with jargon or figurative language. 

Simple, concise content will help your writing reach more people. You can create stronger calls to action, improve the consistency of your content, and keep your readers engaged.

WCAG Guidelines for Jargon and Idioms

The Web Content Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standard for digital accessibility. Using jargon won’t prevent your content from following WCAG Level AA, which is considered the standard for creating reasonably accessible content for people with disabilities. Read more about WCAG Levels.

However, WCAG does address jargon in Success Criterion (SC) 3.1.3, “Unusual Words,” which is a Level AAA guideline. Ironically, that criterion contains some jargon: 

A mechanism is available for identifying specific definitions of words or phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, including idioms and jargon.

The “mechanism" may be a hyperlink to a glossary or a quick in-line explanation of the term. 

When Using Complex Words, Provide Clear Definitions

Sometimes, jargon is unavoidable. We sometimes use jargon on this blog, but we try to define unusual terms wherever possible. 

For example, if we refer to something like programmatically determinable roles, accessibility professionals know exactly what we mean. That term has an extremely specific definition, and if we’re writing about something like website structure, we need to use the correct terminology. 

However, we also need to define that term so that people outside of the accessibility space can understand it. In the paragraph above, we’ve linked to an article titled “What ‘Programmatically Determined' Means for Accessibility,” which serves as our definition.

Depending on the nature of your content, you may need to find other ways to explain unusual terms. If your website uses a large amount of jargon, consider adding a hyperlink to your glossary on every page. You can also improve readability by using subheadings, lists, and images to make your content more scannable. 

Before Using Jargon, Make Sure It’s Essential

In most situations, the best option is to avoid jargon entirely. Before using an unusual term, consider whether it actually improves your content. Are you using the term to give your audience essential information, or are you using it to make your content sound more important? 

Let’s consider two sentences that deliver the same basic message: 

  1. As part of our efforts to implement universal 2FA and tokenization, we’re establishing non-BYOD workspaces.
  1. We currently allow employees to bring their own devices to work. Because that practice causes security concerns, we’re changing our policy.

Which sentence makes more sense? Your answer may depend on your professional background. If you work in information technology (IT), you may understand the terminology in the first sentence: BYOD is short for “Bring Your Own Device," while 2FA and tokenization refer to specific security concepts.

By using these terms, the first sentence delivers slightly more information. However, the second sentence clearly communicates the message to a much wider audience. 

If you have the option, you should use simple language. However, the next-best option is to provide definitions where appropriate — and make sure that your content follows the other best practices of web accessibility.

For more guidance, download The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility, our free 29-page eBook. 

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