[Post 13 of the DITA Loc Wire series] The Holy Grail of content developers is to deliver the right content, at the right time, to the right audience, in the right format. To accomplish this goal, we have structured authoring and information architectures giving rise to omni-channel publishing, which relies on single sourcing the content across these channels.
However, many companies struggle to implement an effective single-sourcing strategy, in part because they lack editorial oversight of the vocabulary and lack consistency across the documentation set. This is where implementing controlled language, such as Simplified Technical English (STE), can help.

What is Controlled Language?

Controlled language is, at its most basic, a subset of a natural language that restricts the grammar and vocabulary. The intent is to eliminate ambiguity and complexity by using the simplest term that will get the meaning across. Typically, controlled language helps improve readability for both humans and machines. Controlled language encompasses several initiatives, such as Plain Language, Caterpillar English, and Simplified Technical English (STE) (See also Wikipedia’s entry on controlled language)

Currently, the only approved standard is STE. One of the reasons for its rising popularity is that the standard is free to download and contains robust examples and practical explanations for implementation. Approximately 60% of the downloads for the specification come from companies outside the aerospace industry. The infographic below shows a brief history of STE, courtesy of Etteplan.

History STE source Etteplan

While some companies object to the restrictiveness of STE, it provides an excellent basis for enforcing best practices of simplicity, specificity, and consistency. Rules, such as “one word, one meaning” help ensure that the dictionary is both specific and compact. STE is also flexible, enabling companies to augment the core dictionary to meet their needs, while still complying with the spirit of the standard.

Why Should Companies Implement Simplified Technical English?

When you have multiple channels, multiple languages, and an explosion of content, it becomes challenging to ensure consistency and quality if you don’t have good editorial controls, such as STE. Combined with technologies such as machine learning, Internet of Things, and AI, which need concrete and specific input in order to function properly, it becomes even more important.

The 6 benefits of implementing Simplified Technical English

  • Future-proofing your content
    Controlled language provides a consistent framework that facilitates artificial intelligence, content 4.0, connections to the Internet of Things, and makes the information easier to find and understand by your global audience.
  • Reduced localization costs and increased quality
    Every time you use different terminology to describe the same thing or use overly complex language, you add to your localization costs and increase the likelihood of your content being mistranslated. By using controlled language, you can make your content more consistent and easier to translate. In addition, you can engage your in-country reviewers earlier in the process by helping you define preferred translations of your vocabulary terms. Companies have reported saving 30% or more in localization costs after implementing controlled language.
  • Improved source content quality and reduced content creation costs
    Implementing controlled language well means improving your content quality and efficiency of conversion to new systems, while reducing your volume and your costs by 40% in many cases.
  • Reduced technical support costs
    Customers contact tech support when they can’t solve their own problem, or when the product is too difficult to use. By implementing controlled language, you can help ensure that customers are getting clear, concise instructions and troubleshooting.
  • Reduced liability
    Ambiguous or inaccurate content has cost companies millions of dollars in damages. In many cases, these companies would not have had problems if they had had stricter terminology management and better editorial controls. Examples range from loss of a power transformer due to poorly worded documentation, to the crash of the Mars Orbiter due to inconsistent units of measure (http://bit.ly/2maQsap).
  • Reduced product cycle time
    Companies have reported up to 30% reduction in product cycle time after implementing controlled language and making their processes more efficient and effective.

Best practices for implementing Simplified Technical English

Key takeaway: Implementing controlled language is an ongoing process that requires buy-in from upper management, a strategy, and an implementation plan.

The most successful implementations have defined processes, training for the teams that will be implementing and using it, and an editorial control board to manage the dictionary and help ensure compliance. In addition, there are tools that can help your editors verify compliance, such as Etteplan’s HyperSTE.

This blog post was co-authored by Kit Brown-Hoekstra, Berry Braster and Roy Wijnen.


Kit Brown-Hoekstra is a senior consultant with WhP, Principal of Comgenesis, LLC, and an Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication. She provides consulting and training in a variety of technical communication and localization topics, speaks regularly at industry conferences worldwide, and contributes articles to industry publications. She recently edited The Language of Localization  from XML Press.

Berry Braster is Technology Director at Etteplan, a progressive group of over 3,300 specialists who are working to spark positive change in the world of engineering, technical documentation and IoT. Berry has close to 20 years of experience in the technical documentation area, and has assisted many companies in various industries with their content strategy and content quality needs.

Roy Wijnen is the Project Manager for STE implementations at Etteplan. Roy has a background in linguistics and technology and strongly believes in applying controlled language to improve language quality and providing end users with engaging content. Roy has trained close to 2,500 technical authors worldwide working in various industries over the past 10 years, his training sessions are highly regarded by global leaders in their industries.