Inclusive Language — Standard Beagle

Standard Beagle
9 min readSep 6, 2022

Inclusive language is a core component of UX content

Using inclusive language makes users feel more at ease and comforted when using a product, which makes it a better user experience (UX).

Inclusive language makes content more understandable to people from diverse backgrounds — not just a select user group.

In a recent article, we discussed the importance of inclusivity, the differences between inclusivity versus accessibility and universal design, and the 5 steps toward an inclusive user experience. Here is why and how to implement inclusive language when creating content in the UX process.

Why inclusive language is important to businesses

According to studies, diverse and inclusive companies globally deliver more innovation, improved financial reports and improved user experiences. Spectrum, Adobe’s design system, has found that companies that don’t make inclusivity a priority face consequences. Negative impacts for businesses include:

  • the ability to connect with fewer people
  • negative sentiment both inside the company and in the broader industry.

Additionally, a lack of inclusive language may have negative impact on a brand’s value.

  • Companies recruit fewer candidates from historically under-invested companies.
  • Companies and their products perpetuate stereotypes of and prejudice against historically under-invested communities.

But when companies use inclusive language in their products and services, users feel supported and a sense of belonging. This increases a brand’s perceived value in the users’ eye.

Writers shape language.

Language shapes reality.

We can shape reality through our content.

- Kinneret Yifrah

Best practices for inclusive language

It’s important to think about your users’ background and content when writing for them. Here are general tips to keep your language inclusive.

Be aware of gendered language and stereotypes

Have you looked at your current communications? Are you making assumptions about your users? Are you using gendered language? Traditionally language has been gender binary, which assumes only two genders. This assumption may exclude people who don’t consider themselves gender binary or whose gender identity may have changed over time.

Remove gender binary terms and be open to changes in gender pronouns. Or use “they/them” as a singular pronoun.

Also evaluate content for stereotypes that may exclude any groups based on ethnicity, location, politics, or faith.

Avoid acronyms, jargon, and colloquialisms

Though popular inside companies, acronyms, jargons and colloquialisms can alienate anyone not familiar with the terms. These terms can frustrate people new to an industry or region, who may feel excluded from the larger group.

It’s better to use plain language rather than colorful expressions that could deter better communication or understanding. Instead of saying, “I hit a home run,” which would be familiar to those who grew up with baseball in the U.S., instead consider saying,” I won the deal,” which would be clear to more people.

Be careful when using slang

Some slang terms in common use may have originated from negative connotations or inferences from centuries ago. For example, the term “peanut gallery” came from the 1920’s in a time when people of color were only allowed to sit in the back of a theater. In fact, many slang terms in common use in the U.S. have ethnic or racially-charged origins. It’s important to educate yourself before using these terms in UX content.

Be aware of medical conditions and ability terms

We sometimes hear people use medical terms flippantly without thinking about the actual condition — like when someone says they are “OCD” if they have a strong attention to detail. Medical conditions — mental health conditions in particular — may have stigma associated, and it’s important to avoid using language that could exclude.

Designers should also avoid ableist language. “Abelism” is discrimination based on disability, and it can take various forms. This includes phrases like, “turning a blind,” “acting like a psycho,” “making a dumb choice,” and more. People with disabilities may consider language like this as micro-aggressions which can do real harm — even if unintentional.

Choose more straightforward and literal language, and continue to ask questions and avoid assumptions. It’s important to understand if your word choice may contribute to ongoing ableist language.

Writing about people

Gender and sexuality

Using gender inclusive language means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes. Designers should avoid gendered language and stereotypes. Gendered language, particularly in identifying users, may alienates half or more of your potential market. Gendered terms such as “waitress” or “businessman” can carry stereotypes about a woman serving food or a man in a suit.

Even pronouns could contribute to gendered language. Instead of “he” or “she,” use non-gendered pronouns such as “they,” “them,” or “their.” This removes language that may unintentionally support stereotypes.

Disability / Ableism

Only mention disabilities when relevant. Focus on the person rather than a disability, and avoid suggesting victimhood. Designers should never assume or imply that a person is suffering from a disability or is a victim of a condition.

For example, use the phrase “hard of hearing” instead of “hearing impaired.” Hearing impaired is not appropriate when describing people with any degree of hearing loss, from mild to profound, because the term “impair” implies a deficit or that something is wrong that makes a person less whole. When you set the standard experience for fully able-bodied people, you exclude people who don’t fall into this category.

Another example is referring to people with vision impairments as “the blind” or a “blind person.” Instead use “a person who is blind,” which is person-first. Qualifying a person by their disability first can emphasize the disability over the person. Users say acknowledging personhood first feels more humanizing.

Avoid using euphemisms. Examples are “handicapped,” or “differently abled.” These terms have been used historically to segregate people with disabilities. For communities that have had a negative experience with terms describing them, it can feel like a deliberate way to exclude or misunderstand them. By listening to the affected communities, it shows a willingness to be aware of their needs. Instead use “people with or persons with disabilities.”

Ableist language

Other examples include terms to describer people like as “crazy,” “OCD,” “ADD,” “bipolar,” and “lame.” These are common parlance, commonly used to as descriptors that imply negativity based on slurs against people with disabilities. The exaggeration can also lead to misunderstandings and stigmas about OCD, ADD, or bipolar diagnoses and the people who have them. “Dumb,” “dummy,” “retarded” are also terms that historically segregates people with disabilities, so avoid them.

Race, ethnicity and class

Avoid emphasis on differences between any groups of people. Common phrases like “whitelist,” “blacklist,” and “it’s not black and white” refer to positive or negative, implying that one is better than the other. This continues long-held ethnic and racial stereotypes and aggressions.

Another example is the term “nude” for referring to skin tone. When “nude” refers to a specific skin tone, it alienates other skin types. Historically, this excludes darker skin tones, and reflects a disinterest or forgetfulness around these groups of people. Use beige, cream, peach, tan, or dark brown instead.

Writing for readability

Readability is an important factor for inclusive content.

If your text or content is hard to understand, chances are great that people will leave your page to find a different option. UX writing should follow three rules:

This increases readability for everyone, such as users with disabilities or users that are non-native English speakers. To ensure readability, don’t write at a high level above understanding, design layout of text to be clear, and follow grammatical rules.

Write for a 6th grade reading level

According to WebFX, Flesch-Kincaid readability tests have uncovered that an average American adult reads at a 7th to 9th grade level. Adobe’s design system Spectrum encourages writing at a 6th grade level to include more people, and not just those with disabilities that affect comprehension.

Designers should:

  • aim to write in short sentences.
    Sentences should be concise and avoid using unnecessary adjectives or adverbs.
  • avoid internal jargon and abbreviations as much as possible. Only use jargon when you have localized the users with the terms.
  • Explain brand or technical jargons before using.
  • Write out the full term for any abbreviations or acronyms, then follow with a shortened version in parentheses first.
  • use clear, plain messaging
    Avoiding colloquial words and phrases helps to avoid ageism and excluding non-native users.

Hemingwayapp.com is a great (and free!) resource to check your writing readability.

Layout of text

The layout of text can impact how quick and easy it is to read. Visual appeal should not impair users’ ability to read.

  • Left aligned text is preferred.
    When text is left-aligned, the starting line of each sentence is aligned, which requires less effort for users to find the next line.
  • Avoid full justification of text. Full justification creates text rivers, or alignment of spaces that creates running gaps through the text. This makes text especially difficult for readers with dyslexia.
  • Center aligned and right aligned text can confuse the user as the starting line of each sentence is different. This forces any user to work harder to read. Center aligned text could be used for headlines or small sentences, but not for running text that requires repetitive movement of the eye.

Line length should be at 50–75 characters per sentence to reduce cognitive load. Any longer and you risk your readers losing focus.

Grammar for inclusive language

Correct grammar makes an impact on readability. Some common ways to keep readers from getting confused are:

  • using sentence case
    While title cases make sentences look more symmetrical and provide visual prominence, sentence cases are more natural and are easier for users to read.
  • avoiding use of all caps other than acronyms
    Other than the fact that in social context capitalized words means that you are yelling, all caps text is difficult to scan. This slows downreading speed from 13 to 20 percent. Additionally, all-cap text is not accessible for screen-reader users, because screen-readers may interpret them as acronyms and read them letter-by-letter.

Writing with visuals

Visuals are an important aspect when considering UX design. Visual elements provide hierarchy and aesthetic, but UX content should never solely rely on visuals. Designers must think and write as if visuals do not exist in order to communicate to everyone and anyone.

Remember screen readers

Information organization around a position creates pain points for users who rely on screen readers or magnifiers. Try organization information around time.

Provide alternative (alt) text

Alternative (alt) text is the short string of text that describes the function or content of a visual cue, like icon or images, and appears in place of that visual cue if it fails to load on a screen. It improves understanding and clarity, benefiting everybody — not just those who use assistive technology. You can learn more about the benefits of alt text in our two part series on images.

Best practices for writing alt text include:

  • using active voice (simple, clear, and conversational)
  • consistent tone and terminology
  • avoiding writing “image of,” because it is apparent to screen readers already that the element is an image. Providing “image of” is redundant.

Label and instructions

To prevent errors before correcting them, use consistent navigation and identification and components across the board. Make sure to describe what is happening and what is expected from users from the get go.

Avoid relying only on colors, icons, or visuals for action steps or communication.

Summary

Implementing inclusive language is more than find-and-replace problematic and exclusive language. It takes the conscious effort of all parties to change the way we use words, inside and outside digital experiences to make everyone feel welcome.

Originally published at https://standardbeagle.com on September 6, 2022.

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Standard Beagle

Award-winning UX agency helping B2B SaaS and health tech level up against competition to win customers through UX strategy, user research, and product design.