Writing for a citizen isn’t the same as for a customer
I’ve written web content for everyone from huge corporations to one-person start ups, and from small charities to central government departments. But for the last few months I’ve been writing ‘citizen-facing’ content (ie for the public, rather than policy-makers and other specialist audiences) for GOV.UK.
Each type of organisation is trying to achieve something particular with their web content, but GOV.UK has an unusual goal.
Writing for the private sector
When you’re writing for most organisations, you’re trying to get the user to:
- buy something (the other goals are usually designed to eventually help achieve this one)
- take a longer journey through the site – you’re trying to hold onto them, and give them regular and varied opportunities to buy
- deepen their engagement with the brand – trying to turn casual browsers into regular visitors, regular visitors into buyers, and buyers into ‘brand advocates’ that tell their friends about the company
Writing for GOV.UK
GOV.UK has fundamentally different goals, and that affects how we write the content.
Engaging with the government is something you do because you have to. It’s a necessary part of being a citizen. You want to get it done as quickly and easily as possible, then get on with your life. Because there’s no profit motive, we don’t want to alter that behaviour.
How this affects the content
When we write for GOV.UK our aim is to make your experience simpler, clearer and faster.
We’ve cut the amount you need to read to be able to complete an action. Where possible, we’ve also reduced the number of steps involved in completing it.
We’re not trying to encourage you to explore the site. We’ve only included related items and links that may help you achieve your goal.
We’ve tried to make each piece of content as self-contained as possible, allowing you to complete a particular task without having to meander through the site to get all the information. To make sure that’s possible, we also have to assume that you haven’t arrived at a particular piece of content from the GOV.UK homepage, or even from the start of a particular guide.
We show it to subject-matter experts before users see it. If we get it wrong, they tell us and we correct it. By the time it gets to you, it should be both clear and accurate.
We’re writing for the common case, and telling you where you can get more specific information if you need it. This has been one key way we’ve tried to de-clutter the content, and make it quick to digest.
We’ve simplified, not dumbed down. If you need some information to complete a task or meet your legal obligations, we’ve included it – as clearly as possible.
Has it worked?
It’s going very well so far. The content designers – that’s the title we have for people who write and create the pages you see on GOV.UK – have watched a lot of user testing, and all of us have watched users trying to achieve tasks. As a result, we’ve seen firsthand where our content has succeeded and where it’s failed.
Generally, the response from users has been extremely positive – we’ve even had front line staff commenting that the content is much clearer. But where people have struggled, we’ve changed the content. We’ll continue to do that based on ongoing feedback, and based on the data we’ll get from millions of users after 17 October.