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Unemployment Letters Meet Plain Language to Improve Clarity and Accessibility

Case Study

Washington State Department of Employment Security

Person working on laptop with the ESD website showing in a web browser
Man opening mail in front of his mailbox
Diagram showing project flow

The Problem

The Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) aims to boost economic security for Washingtonians by managing unemployment, providing job training, and supplying workforce data. 

State Bill 5193, requires ESD to use clear and easy-to-understand language in all communications. ESD asked Anthro-Tech to help it meet these requirements by improving the clarity of decision letters sent to people applying for unemployment benefits. 

Specifically, they wanted us to simplify the letter drop-ins — templates that explain: the decision on an unemployment claim, the reason for the decision, and next steps for the applicant. Customers had previously raised concerns about the confusing language used in these drop-ins. 

The Solution

ESD provided us with hundreds of letter drop-ins they use to communicate with customers. After three rounds of prioritization, including a content audit, we selected 90 letters from 750 variations. This sample covered all relevant issues and language variations. 

To evaluate the clarity of the letters, we designed a customer survey. Survey participants represented various literacy levels, languages, educational backgrounds, and cognitive abilities. Their feedback revealed that the letters were difficult to understand due to unclear explanations for decisions, confusing flow, harsh language, and excessive jargon. Our content strategists and UX researchers recommended ways to make these communications more helpful for people navigating unemployment claims.

Example Letter Drop-in

The following ESD letter drop-in confused participants because the language wasn’t easy to understand, and the reason for ESD’s decision wasn’t clear.


The law says moving to follow your spouse or domestic partner can be a good reason to quit your job. You need a good reason to quit and become eligible for benefits:
To be eligible:

  • You must keep your job for as long as reasonable. What is reasonable depends on the situation.
  • Your spouse or domestic partner must quit for a job outside your labor market area. Your new commute distance or time will be more than normal for your occupation.

We decided you didn't have a good reason for quitting your job because:
You didn't stay at your job for as long as was reasonable before you moved. 

Survey Response

People didn’t get what reasonable meant and thought it was too vague or subjective. For example, they wanted to know who decides what's reasonable or get more resources to follow up. Here is one survey participant response:

The word ‘reasonable’ is not clarified, nor is there a resource for discovering what is reasonable for the situation at hand. Reasonable is a term that is entirely up for individual discretion, and does not provide any understanding of the decision being made.
Diagram showing the ESD project flow: Discovery, Content Audit, Findings, Comprehensive Survey

From discovery to a comprehensive survey, Anthro-Tech developed a custom evaluation process to achieve immediate impact for EDS. 

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The Impact

Our work on ESD's confusing unemployment decision letters had an immediate impact. Using the survey data, ESD swiftly began rewriting the letters to claimants. The new versions feature improved structure and formatting, less jargon, clearer cause-and-effect statements, more understandable explanations, and a less bureaucratic tone. These revisions will make it simpler for individuals claiming unemployment benefits to grasp the decisions made by ESD and the reasons behind them.  

The ESD team now has practical recommendations and clear guidelines for improving their customer communications. We provided plain language tips along with specific examples and explanations to assist their team in crafting more understandable decision-making letter drop-ins. These recommendations include avoiding hypothetical situations, using friendly and compassionate language when denying claims, and placing the decision early in the letter for clarity.