As Sarah Richards has already said, the citizen beta of GOV.UK is as much about radical simplicity in words as it is about design and back-end innovation. In a few murky corridors, clarity is still considered heresy. Alan Maddrell, Content Designer for the Government Digital Service explains how we’re achieving clarity.
Write less, say more
There’s an understandable tendency in government to want the user to understand everything they might possibly need to know in case something goes wrong. There’s occasionally even an unstated wish to impress people with complexity so they take the process seriously. Yet evidence shows that our minds recoil when confronted with reams of words. It’s our job as content designers to get out of the way of people completing what they came to do. One of the things we learnt on the citizen beta of GOV.UK is that this is harder than it sounds. A refrain heard daily was “do you actually need to know that at this point?”.
We have the tools, we have the talent
GDS has skilled and dedicated developers at the top of their game. The reason they’re able to deliver such amazing stuff is because we’re set up to allow this to happen. Everything from machines to recruitment and procurement is set up to allow talented people to do what they’re good at. Content is no different.
Putting lipstick on the pig
If crucial decisions affecting usability are being made not by content specialists but by external forces, users suffer. Historically this has led to inflexible, decade-long contracts with suppliers resulting in substandard tools and services from the users point of view. External forces means well-intentioned people whose focus is not on clear communications writing opaque content and passing it to “the website guys” to put up. They’re told “it’s already been signed off”. Last-minute rewrites can’t fix that. A colleague elsewhere in government calls it “putting lipstick on the pig”. External forces means the roles are confused.
The view that anybody can write is common in and out of government. Information seen by millions can sometimes be written by anyone, from policy experts to tech specialists, with no specific communication or content training. When it’s written with the user in mind by digital content specialists, it’s easier to navigate by the user because they have the skills required to strip the complexity out, leaving simplicity.
How we wrote the citizen beta
We’ve had the generous and invaluable cooperation of subject matter experts across government and these relationships work because roles are closely defined. Subject experts checked the content for accuracy, content specialists checked for usability. This rebalanced the relationship. When the facts were signed off, it went live. It took both sides a little while to get used to, but overall it worked surprisingly smoothly.
Doing the do
What worked? The text is sparse, clean, informative and rigorously task-oriented (“where’s the do?”). We produced content very quickly – and that’s all we did. When factual inaccuracies were found by the experts, they were fixed in moments. On the flip side, sometimes we didn’t know what was missing. We’re very grateful for the suggestions we’ve had for future content from across government, as well as from the third sector and the public. Sometimes our brains hurt because we had to get up to speed on a different subject almost every day and sometimes we got scared. At beta release, there were some content items that would (and will) later be replaced by smart answers or other formats. But it worked and redesigning the editorial process is what allowed this to happen.
Gov.uk – content in 7 steps
- user needs identified through data
- content designer writes draft
- review by another designer (“second pair of eyes”)
- user data reviewed
- content iterated