We don’t know each other, but chances are you’ve read something I’ve written.
I’ve been writing words for websites for the last 10 years and during the past 18 months I had the chance to do something quite special: I trained 1,500 people how to write for GOV.UK.
The project was huge. More than 300 government departments, agencies and arm’s length bodies had to move to a single domain. User needs would have to be assessed. Content would have to fit into new formats. And web editors would have to write in a consistent way so users wouldn’t notice differences in dates, spelling or formatting.
Moving content to GOV.UK meant changing the way people worked. Change is always hard, so I had to give people tangible reasons why using the GOV.UK style guide was a good idea. And I had it: the decisions weren’t based on arbitrary whims from an editor. They were based on solid user research.
The reason it uses numerals, rather than written-out numbers? Because users find it easier to pick them out in the text. Why is plain English so important? Because we are writing for the UK population and can’t discriminate, so we should write for a reading age of 9 (by comparison, The Sun writes for a reading age of 7). We write ‘to’ instead of using a hyphen in number ranges so screen readers don’t read out ‘minus’.
Teaching writers to write
I was brought in to train those editors and writers. Initially I thought it would be straightforward: here’s the F-shape pattern, edit and edit again: job’s a good’un. Of course, it ended up a bit more complicated. You work to agile principles at Government Digital Service, which means you do research and information gathering during a discovery phase. Then you build your first version of what you hope to do – in my case I built a training slide deck – this is your minimum viable product. This needs to be good enough to test with people to get feedback. The purpose is to learn whether it will work in practice. I ran a mini training session (an alpha) with colleagues from the content team. You know the first time you do something new and your voice goes all high and nervous? That.
Armed with useful feedback, I added more examples into the slides. I tweaked. This part of the agile process is called iterating. At this point I realised I wasn’t just telling people how to write: I was telling people who were already writers how to do their job. Ah.
I had a feeling that going through a style guide line-by-line could be a bit dull for participants so I wanted to get them enthused about writing for GOV.UK in general and to understand the style guide was one part of their overall ContentOps. We discussed problems. They worked in pairs to put content into style. We worked as a group to structure content on post-it notes. My favourite trick was getting people to share what they knew about writing and language.
On to the first sessions with real, actual people in real, actual agencies – this was the beta. The aim here was to find out what worked and what didn’t. Lengthy explanations about the technical build of the website were out. Asking people about how they worked and how the style guide could help them were in.
For a year I discussed content with 12 writers, three times a week. People had stories and questions and frustrations. Some desperately wanted to move over to GOV.UK, some were resistant. Every single one had to be listened to.
Content is UX
Talking about how content is part of the overall user experience was also useful. Formatting, structure and language all have a part to play in making readers’ lives as easy as possible.
The way you learn to write essays in school means you start with introductory text, followed by background, then arguments and finally the conclusion. When you’re online, you already have some of this background and context as you’ve already done a search to find the content you’re looking for. This means we should think about presenting information in a different order.
People blink less often when looking at a screen, which tires the eyes and decreases motivation to carry on reading. Once writers know this, they think more carefully about how content looks on a screen. They naturally shorten sentences and add more white space into the page.
Many people I trained said they felt writing for the web was ‘upside down’ as we talked about putting the conclusion at the start of the content. This can make for a better user experience as users can get the information they’re looking for more quickly.
Is this content fit for purpose?
We wanted to know that the course was useful to writers. Asking for feedback from attendees meant I could tweak the structure and slides. Looking at the content that was produced for GOV.UK was also a good way to check writers were using the style guide.
Some of the feedback included:
‘I did find the session really useful in considering how to style and structure communication, to ensure that the general public understand and find information simple to read.’
‘The most useful thing is that it makes you truly think about the content we publish – it makes you think: is this fit for purpose?’
‘I found it most interesting and informative, as well as being well delivered! I am a great believer in change, but only if it improves the situation and never if it is only change for change sake (to many in my area see forced unconsidered change as a means of advancement and not as an improvement tool!).’
‘Thanks again for the session – It made me aware of a number things to consider when putting up content, particularly user needs – that should now be drilled into me!’
User needs are writers’ needs
The design principles for GOV.UK say to start with user needs. This means looking closely at the analytics to see what content users go to and working out what they are most interested in. As well as analytics we also look at written or spoken feedback to find this information.
These needs are so useful for writers. We can use them to tell us what the content needs to include – and what it shouldn’t. So often we overload pages with information because we don’t know how much our audience knows.
As a writer, part of your role is to represent the user in the organisation. Why are they here? What do they need? How can you give them that information quickly? The formal process of identifying user needs for GOV.UK helped writers create quality content with a purpose, rather than something based on a hunch.
Evidence beats persuasion
The way to get writers to start using a new style guide is to make sure the guide is logical. Most people just want an explanation for decisions. What really makes those explanations memorable is when you show them the evidence of it working. Accessibility, the way we read online and different devices all have an impact on how much people will read and how well they’ll understand the content. Nobody writes to be ignored. In fact, I think the amount of emotion that’s buried in the sentences we write shouldn’t be underestimated. Training writers how to write turned out to be showing writers how people read, and letting them make the changes they felt were right.