Did you know that there are awards to celebrate the best in plain language and clear documents? There is! Each year, the Center for Plain Language hosts the ClearMark awards – a time to toast the best plain language communication written for consumers by government, private companies and non-profits.
We are happy to report that Kleimann Communication Group and its partner, Graves Fowler Creative, have won the 2014 Grand ClearMark Award along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The Grand ClearMark Award is the top distinction of the Center for Plain Language awards. The Center for Plain Language established this annual award program to honor the best use of plain language in print and online communications by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private industry.
The winning entry by Kleimann/Graves Fowler is an integrated mortgage loan disclosure form created to replace current mortgage documents. The goal of this document is to help consumers compare offers from different lenders, understand loan terms and closing costs, and make informed decisions when purchasing a home. The team used qualitative and quantitative testing as well as an iterative design process to develop a form that would meet the needs of both English- and Spanish-speaking communities.
Richard Horn, former CFPB Senior Counsel and Special Advisor (now Partner at Dentons US LLP), recently commented on the outcome:
“The increased clarity of these disclosures will foster a more competitive marketplace for lenders and other settlement service providers. And perhaps more importantly, the disclosures will let consumers make better financial decisions for them and their families, avoiding costs and risks they cannot afford. The team’s hard work will arguably prevent the recurrence of one of the primary causes of the financial crisis that has cost this country so much.”
Admit it. Probably every writing training or writing textbook you have read, touched, or ignored has talked about the importance of analyzing your audience. Okay, that makes sense. But what happens when most people attempt to do this? They produce a long list of characteristics that sound like, well, everything and nothing.
Our audience is a mix of ages. They are all races and education levels. They speak primarily English unless they speak primarily Spanish. Some are interested in the topic and some are not too interested. Some read well, and others don’t.
Wow! That really helps! Here’s a better way . . .
Start with what you want an individual to do when they read the information. Really good discipline is to avoid an intellectual action, like “know” or “understand.” Instead, think about a physical action– do you want them to call a phone number? Return a form? Go to a website? We call this Task Completion. When you think in terms of task, you’re totally focused on your user and the purpose of the document.
Now you may have more than one user. Again rather than think in terms of vague demographic characteristics, think in terms of the task each one needs to complete. The task may be entirely different. When you know this kind of stuff, you’re in much better shape to think about the following questions:
1. Do the different tasks need different documents?
2. How can we organize information so both tasks are clear?
3. What details must be included?
4. What details are less important?
5. What do I have to tell them?
6. What do I want to tell them?
Focusing on Task Completion can help us truly analyze the audience needs and create documents that work.
It has been a year since the Department of Housing and Urban Development released the new Good Faith Estimate. HUD’s stated goals for the new GFE were to: 1) help consumers understand costs before settlement; and 2) enable consumers to compare and shop the best loan. As plain language practitioners, who want consumers to understand information, we’re always interested in how major initiatives really work.
So, what’s the verdict on this new form? An article from the Wall Street Journal discusses ways that the GFE can help consumers shop for loans. But to be fair, not everyone is happy about the changes. Real estate professionals report that the new GFE is cumbersome and costly. A recent survey by Broker Banker notes that 95% inflate their GFEs to avoid tolerance violations, and some lenders have developed “worksheets” to avoid being held to the GFE tolerances, thus subverting the consumers’ ability to shop for a loan and a lender. Although there are software packages to estimate GFE figures, many lenders choose not to use them.
Ultimately the proof of how well the GFE “works” will be demonstrated over time as we see how well it protects consumers and streamlines the homebuying process. Already, some evidence shows that the GFE is meeting its intended purposes. A new study shows that settlement costs have gone up, at least partially because lenders can now be penalized for not accurately disclosing fees on the GFE. Some mortgage lenders are speaking out about how the form benefits consumers.
Any major change such as the new standardized GFE is bound to encounter growing pains. Future research must focus on assessing the real costs and benefits of the form – both to consumers and industry. At the same time, industry feedback must be considered while also balanced with a “tough stand” towards lenders who consciously inflate tolerances or otherwise subvert the honest use of the GFE. Even with a new GFE, the work of improving the homebuying process is just beginning. Listening to consumers and industry with an eye towards greater system improvement will be a win/win for everyone involved.
Kleimann worked with HUD to develop the Good Faith Estimate and to test it qualitatively and quantitatively with over 1600 homebuyers and potential homebuyers. The new GFE was released in January 2010.