Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ruff, Gaff and Guff

Here are three short text passages. How would you simplify them?

Two Hearts by West was not a pretty contract. North led the queen of spades and South overtook with the king and returned the queen of clubs, preparatory to a defensive crossruff. Declarer won the club and led with his diamond. North won the ace, gave his partner a club ruff, and South followed with two more top spades, North discarding a diamond, then a fourth spade, ruffed with the nine and overruffed with the jack. North gave his partner a final club ruff, then came a fifth spade, declarer’s ruff with the ten winning. From the bridge column of The Times newspaper.

The common and traditional way to rig the tops'l sheet (or clew outhaul) is from the clew to a turning block at the after end of the gaff, then forward and down to a turning block on the lower side of the gaff jaws, continuing down to deck level to be belayed. Traditionally, the belay point is on the main boom, near the gooseneck/yaws, and the turning block at the gaff jaws is hung from a short pendant. With the belay point on the boom, sheet tension ought to remain constant from one tack to the other (as opposed to being belayed to a pin on deck, where the lead would change). From the website of the Old Gaffers Association (hint: sailing boats)

The UK funding system introduced by the Pensions Act 2004 works on the basis that the target funding level (technical provisions) combined with the employer covenant forms the basis of security for defined benefits. If the covenant is removed or marginalised, trustees should recognise that this should substantially increase the scheme’s appropriate level of technical provisions, and they should reflect this potential change in negotiations and the mitigation they seek. From a discussion paper of The Pensions Regulator

If it was just a matter of plain English, I wouldn't do anything to the first one - according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula it is already grade 7.2, which is pretty good. The other two are grade 12. But even after looking up 'ruff' in the dictionary (it means 'an act or instance of trumping when one cannot follow suit'), I am none the wiser. To make this passage clear to me would require an evening class over several weeks, at the very least. Even though the sentences are short, I don't know what the words mean. Even when I know what the words mean, I don't know the rules.

On that count, the sailing example should be clear to me, though. I happen to know what most the technical words mean, and I have a boat, so I know the rules. But it is not clear, and I need to draw a diagram to be able to place the different items on the boat, and understand how they are connected.

The third item is very similar to some text I am trying to edit right now. I have no idea whether its intended audience can understand either the words or the rules of the game.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Walk this way

Waiting to pay for a book in Foyles at St Pancras station the other day, I found myself queuing from the wrong direction. When the shop person finished dealing with the person in front, she then served someone else who just arrived from the other direction... as if I wasn't there.

I apparently misinterpreted the sign pictured here. I saw it as indicating the direction of travel of the queue, and as ushering me into the space just behind it. Its real intention was to point in the direction I should walk before turning around and queuing from the other side. I should add that the other side did have a notice saying 'queue from this side' but it wasn't visible to me.

Feeling stroppy, and wishing to embarrass my family as all good fathers and husbands should, I complained. The shop person just could not see the problem, because she knew which direction the queue was supposed to go. In effect, she made the case for user-testing. Just because we, having written and designed something, have no difficulty with it, does not mean someone else will react in the same way.

Happily for me, the next customer who arrived made the same 'mistake' as me. So of our sample of three customers, 66.6666% recurring interpreted the arrow as I did.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Small print walks tall

There's been an interesting discussion on the infodesign cafe list about a recent attempt by a British Member of Parliament (Nick Palmer) to introduce a minimum type size for 'small print'. On the advice of the RNIB (the main advocate group for the partially sighted in the UK) and the Plain English Campaign, he suggests a minimum of 12pt. This recommendation surfaces from time to time, but is usually unaccompanied by suggestions about what to do about the paper mountain that would ensue. As several correspondents on the list observed, 12pt type is not a very precise term, and height does not in itself bring legibility... as film posters demonstrate: I've sometimes wondered why Hollywood stars insist on taller type to assert their importance on film posters. Has anyone ever insisted on a contractual right to legible type?