Welcome to The Perfect Curve.

A content strategy for local government

simon gray - 2016-06-21, 12:45:57

In a previous job role on the main corporate webteam for a local council, one of my main focuses was on website content strategy, for the Birmingham City Council website; towards the end of that role (before the team itself was fundamentally changed in a departmental restructure) I completed the first draft of that strategy. As departmental and corporate priorities have shifted my original document has been changed and expanded considerably, but I thought it seemed worthwhile sharing it here for the wider community - the Local Government Digital community and any other public / third / educational sector digital community to use as a basis for their own work on developing content strategies.

It is high-level, strategic in nature; its goal is to outline principles to be followed when creating content; although there are some specific matters of detail towards the end of the document, a content strategy should not be expanded into a highly detailed how-to guide for creating content or checklist for evaluating it - such detailed information is best contained in separate documents rather than expecting content designers to read and absorb one large all-encompassing document.

Many of the principles outlined are taken from the work of others, most notably the Government Digital Service’s Style Guide and LocalGovDigital’s Content Standards, and further details can be found there.

Definition

Content Strategy has been described as…

‘…the practice of planning the content creation, delivery, and governance…’

and

‘…a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project…’

by using

‘…words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences’.

In a nutshell this can be summarised as the distillation of audiencepurpose, and intended outcome.

On a site as large and as wide-ranging serving as diverse a range of citizens’ needs as a council website, there cannot be one single definition of the above three factors – the audience is ‘everybody’, the purpose of the site is ‘to inform the public about the services we offer and enable and encourage the public to carry out some of those services themselves online’, and the intended outcome is ‘the website visitor has achieved what they came to the site to achieve, and maybe something else as well’.

Rather than thinking in terms of all of our content serving ‘everybody’, we instead must take each individual piece of content we intend to publish, and identify specifically audience, purpose, and intended outcome for that individual piece of content, being careful not to inappropriately mix those factors in that content – for example, it would be inappropriate to mix specific information intended for a member of the business community with general information intended for the general public on a page, or to mix information about how a citizen may access a service on a page which details the policies and strategies underpinning that service. Even amongst broad audience categories care must be taken not to mix specific sub-categories of audience – for example, under the audience category of business, the information and transactional needs of the corner shop owner in many cases will be different from the needs of the SME owner which will be different again from the needs of a venture capitalist looking to make an investment of over a million pounds in the city.

User profiles

In common with standard practice in the communications, marketing, and brand management industries, content is best designed having in mind a number of fictional individuals and families which are intended to represent the breadth of potential users of the website. The purpose of these profiles is to enable web editors and content authors to have in their minds a picture of actual people with real and definable needs who will be users of the web content to focus on, rather than thinking in terms of a generic amorphous mass of ‘just anybody’. The profiles also are there to remind us of the wide diversity of citizens we provide services to and who wish to transact with us, find out information from us, or otherwise wish to engage with us (or indeed with whom we ourselves wish to engage) – indeed, to remind us not to focus on one particular group of citizens at the expense of other groups of citizens.

Whilst by nature these are stereotypical, they are not intended to be seen as stereotypes of users or locations, rather they are intended to be broad brush descriptions by which it is helpful to personalise the content by picturing actual individuals going to the website to access it. It is not intended to represent a comprehensive list of the diversity of the area and its citizens, rather it is intended to acknowledge the breadth of diversity we have.

Any given town, city, borough, or county will have its own unique mixture of demographics which its own Citizen Insight team will have researched - however, it is fair to say that any area will broadly consist of the following demographics:

1) Mr and Mrs Mercury

A family living in council housing in a former council estate area, with one child at school and another grown-up child living at home unemployed, and an elderly relative living in a care home in the area. Both parents are employed; they are not on the breadline, though they have little left over for luxuries. They are sceptical about the internet (although they have internet access at home they would not be considered power users), and sceptical about the council - they are aware the council empties the bins and has some responsibility for the local park, but little knowledge of how the council works beyond that and unaware of the extent of council services they do actually use; indeed, they do think of the council as being still responsible for the buses - as well as living literally on the edge of the city, they are also metaphorically on the edge of the notion of civic engagement.

2) Mr and Mr Venus

A couple of young professionals living in a private rented apartment in the up-and-coming hipster area of the city; the bulk of their use of council services is in the leisure and culture sector - libraries, sports facilities, the museum and art gallery, and council-organised cultural festivals and events. They are both digitally and civically engaged - active participants on Twitter and hyperlocal blogs, in the local Neighbourhood Forum, they were active participants in the campaign to introduce a directly elected mayor for the city, readers of the local broadsheet paper on their iPads, and keen to keep an eye on all that is going on at the Civic Centre (from both the elected members and paid officers) and chatter about what they find amongst their friends. Environmental issues feature highly on their personal agendas.

3) Mr and Mrs Mars

A couple running a family-owned business, they have little interest in standard residential council service beyond the basics of roads, bins, schools, and council tax, but a high level of interest in council services for small businesses - they pay business rates, have their rubbish collected by the commercial waste team, occasionally need to engage the services of the council rat-catcher, have to ensure they are complying with relevant council regulations and have the appropriate licenses for their business, and are also interested in what help and support for small businesses the council can offer.

4) Ms Jupiter

A successful career woman living in one of the swanky city centre penthouses, she is not remotely interested in the services the council provides to residents beyond core services such as roads. She is however on the board of the Local Enterprise Partnership. Although she doesn't have any interest in what the council provides to her personally, she is fully aware of the full spread of council service, and is very interested in what the council can do where its work crosses over into her own job.

5) Mr Saturn

A student in his final year at the university, living in shared accommodation in the north of the boroughand intending to stay in the county after he finishes his course. Has no job yet lined up at the end of the year in July so would not be surprised to spend a short time on benefits, however does not expect to spend a very long time unemployed if that occurs - but he could just as easily secure a job ready to walk in to come graduation as he could spending several months seeking work in what has become a tight and competitive jobs market.

6) Mr and Mrs Neptune

These south of the county residents represent the average, the so-called silent majority who don't care about this policy or that initiative, and are not interested in a compelling user experience which excites and engages them in that process - they know what they want, and just need to get things done with the minimum of fuss and agro.

7) Mr and Mrs Uranus

A retired couple living in the relatively well-off north east of the borough who own their own home outright with two grown-up children, one of which living nearby on the verge of making them grandparents, the other living in the South Yorkshire part of the Peak District.

Clearly the above profiles are non-exhaustive sweeping generalisations, and clearly there will be many citizens and potential users of the council website who straddle more than one profile in their needs and interests. However, between those seven profiles they cover a significant amount of both of what people are looking for in the council website, and what the council wishes to provide to people on the site. From these seven personas we can then consider what their needs as users might be.

User needs

Before designing content or functionality for a site, it ought to go without saying that the designer should establish what the need for that content or functionality might be. The organisation will have its own needs to fulfill - which in crude terms will usually boil down to a need to get people to do stuff online rather than phoning up about it - but in order for the site to be successful, those organisational needs must be mapped to the needs of the user.

Some needs will be obvious - users will always need to pay their council tax, report potholes, or report that their bins haven't been collected. Some needs which seem obvious on closer examination will turn out to be less critical and can be deprioritised in favour of more important work - for example, the amount of investment which many councils go to in creating elegant solutions to check online when your bin day is. Have you ever actually needed to contact the council to check when your bin day is? Myself, I've never needed to check my bin day; whenever I've moved into somewhere new, it becomes pretty obvious when bin day comes around - you'll get home in the evening and see half the street has already put their bins out! If you're super eager on moving into a new house, you're almost certainly more likely to ask one of your new neighbours than you are to ask the council.

That said, do not let the absence of user immediately asking for something be an excuse for stifling innovation. Nobody ever asked for contactless electronic ticketing on London transport, but can you imagine a London Underground now without the Oystercard? The establishment of user needs should not be restricted simply to what users are asking for; care sure be taken to validate the true extent of a user need whether asked for or innovated before proceeding with costly or time-consuming development. Doing this will also have the bonus of helping you market your content and functionality to your users thus making a successful site more likely.

Start with why

The traditional method of mapping users to needs is to follow the format

As a [user profile], I want to [do something] because [of a reason], so that [an outcome is achieved].

So we might see

As a resident I want to book a bulky waste collection because I've just bought a new sofa so that I can get rid of the old one to make room for it.

As a parent I want to check what the dates for half term are because I'll need to organise childcare and activities so that my child is properly looked after and entertained during the week.

For the simple, tried-and-tested, obvious pieces of functionality and content, this formulation works well enough. An argument could be made that such content is so obviously needed it doesn't even need spelling out this much.

An alternative way of thinking about user needs mapping is emerging stemming from Simon Sinek's 2013 TEDx talk, Start With Why; he turns the traditional what-> how mapping into a why -> how -> what map.

Taking the example of Apple, the traditional marketing message would go:

"[What] We make great products - [how] they're beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly - [call to action] want to buy one?"

But he speculates the reason for their success is because they start with the Why:

"[Why] Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo; we believe in thinking differently. [how] The way we challenge the status quo is by making products which are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. [what] We just happen to make great products - [call to action] want to buy one?"

By focussing on why the users' needs exists before what the user wants to do, we can both design content and functionality more in tune with the users' needs, and better encourage those users to use it.

I need to make room for my nice new sofa. The council can take away my old worn out sofa; I'll book a bulky waste collection to arrange that.

My child will need looking after during half term week. I can book some annual leave to be off during that time, and arrange with a friend for them to go there for the other days; I'll check what the dates for half term are so I can organise this.

Information architecture

After identifying our user profiles, their needs, and the reasons for those needs, most councils now have determined a need to move away from the traditional topic-led top level categories of the Local Government Navigation List and instead sorting all the council’s services in a user-centric manner. Liverpool City Council were the first in the UK to follow standard marketing principles of segmenting their site according to audience requirements by introducing the navigation top levels of Residents, Business, and The Council, and this content strategy extends that further with About The City and Leisure.

Residents

Audience – everybody who lives in the borough, or is contemplating living in the borough.
Purpose – to give people access to all the information they need to know living in the borough, and to enable them to do things such as pay, book, report, and confirm services (‘carrying out transactions’ in the jargon of the field) online.

Business

Audience – everybody who runs a business – large or small – in the city, or is contemplating starting one, or who may run a business outside Birmingham who could benefit from the business services the council offers.
Purpose – as with Residents, to give business customers access to all the information they need to know, to enable them to carry out business-related transactions, and an additional purpose of marketing council business-related services to business customers.

The Council

Audience – everybody who lives or works in the county, or is a student of politics or organisational design, and more specifically has an interest in the political and organisational structure of the council, and/or interested in the policies and procedures which underpin the services we offer; citizen activists and people with other research interests in the political and organisational layout of the council.
Purpose – to educate citizens in the workings of the council and to stimulate and encourage active citizenship, to enable citizens and journalists (whether professional or amateur) to hold us to account, and to enable citizens to understand the policies and constraints around the way we deliver services.

About the city

Audience – everybody with a general interest in the city, whether they live here, work here, visit here, are contemplating investing here, applying for a job here, or have any other research interest in the city.
Purpose – to provide information about aspects of the city which are of relevance to everybody regardless of marketing segmentation – information about the history of the city, its demographics, census, transport and economic information, to market the city as a first class place to live, work, and play; a section of the site which transcends the narrower residents / business audience demarcation.

Leisure

Audience – everybody who lives and works in the area or who might be visiting the area.
Purpose – to market and promote the city’s leisure offer – events, arts and culture, museums and galleries, community centres, and spectator and participative sport and fitness, and to enable bookings of activities.

The audience of your site goes beyond the people who live there, so for example this is why sections such as Transport should not be in the Residents top level, because visitors are unlikely to look there. Similarly, whilst Leisure may not be the best label for that top level, do not be tempted to call it Visitors, implying that only visitors to your town are going to go to the museum whilst residents ignore it.

Whilst most services – eg, council tax, schools, licensing, and commercial waste collection – can be obviously fitted into just one of the above top levels, some services – eg libraries – have some ambiguity around which of the top levels is the best fit for them. For these services, the home top level will be decided upon where all of those relevant pages will sit, but there will be signpost pages under the other top levels to take the visitor to where the bulk of the content can be found.

When redesigning your site, content, and information architecture, be ready to challenge everything that currently exists; most council website place their pages about markets under the leisure section of the site - but since when has going to buy the weekly vegetables been an activity comparable with a walk in the park or a visit to an art gallery?

The intended outcome of the five top levels is shared – primarily that the website visitor came to the site with a goal in mind – whether that goal is finding out information or performing a transaction – that they were able to quickly identify where on the site (whether by menu navigation, a-z directory, or free text search) their goal might be fulfilled, to quickly and easily fulfill that goal, and as a bonus outcome be made aware of other related and unrelated activity they can carry out on the site. The corollary of the outcome is that their satisfaction as a user is high, that they use the website as their first stop on achieving future goals rather than phoning up or visiting a council office, and they recommend the website to their friends and family.

The expected audience

There are many different audiences for the site as a whole and individual pages within it. Each individual page itself should also be written in the context of audience, purpose, and intended outcome – is the audience general members of the public, an expert in the service, students learning the craft of the service or pupils doing a project, somebody wanting to buy a service, etc. If the audience is the general public then the content should conform as closely as possible to Basic English.

The commonly accepted wisdom has it that roughly 80% of a council website audience and page accesses represents people acting as members of the general public, having an interest in roughly 20% of the total content of the site – the content which is standard resident-focussed content about bins, potholes, schools, housing, benefits, council tax, and planning permission for extensions. This is the content which will deliver the most benefits to the council in terms of channel shift, so this is the content to which the greatest attention should be given to ensure it’s right, and stays right; this content should be presented in such a way that the web user can see what they need to see immediately, complete any task with ease, but where possible it should also be content which is capable of nudging that visitor into other areas of the site where they can also complete other tasks rather than phoning us up to complete them.

Although the general public represents 80% of our audience, the audiences which make up the remaining 20% should not be dismissed as unimportant – these audiences represent people acting in the capacity of business users, visitors to the city (whether business or tourism), citizen activists wishing to scrutinise our work and our policies and hold us accountable to them, experts in any given field or service area wanting to find out more details about how we deliver that service and its underlying policy imperatives, schoolteachers and parents, social care professionals, investors and potential investors in the city needing information to inform their decision making, and even students and schoolchildren doing research to support college and school projects.

The content for these audiences is important too – but content on pages and groups of pages must be structured in such a way that content targeted at one audience does not conflict with content targeted at other audiences – whilst some visitors to the page to report a suspected case of food poisoning may be interested in the additional information about the different kinds of bacteria which cause food poisoning, the Food Law Enforcement Plan or the Food Sampling Protocol, most visitors will not be interested in this – they will just be feeling unbelievably ill and be wanting to get the report over and done with with as little fuss as possible! There is a place for this content – but as additional information separate from the key facts needed by the majority.

The content onion

As stated above, do not mix audiences; a web user needing to report the possibility they’ve contracted food poisoning from a local restaurant does not need to be given on that page guidance in how to register a food business, and vice versa – both aspects of the same Environmental Health service have different audiences, resident and business, so the pages containing information about the former should be under Residents whilst the latter should be under Business.

In structuring the content of the page its purpose and intended outcome must come to the fore – so for example, thinking about the school term dates page, consider what the purpose of the page from the perspective of the customer might be. Finding out what the dates of the school terms are for the current and forthcoming academic years are the obvious purposes of the page, but think more closely – is there a high chance that most people coming to that page have come in order to find out the dates of the next school holiday or half term break? Any page on the site to justify its existence will by definition have a fair amount of content on it, but in considering what the most important to the customer or mostly likely nugget of information might be, put that information at the top of the page clearly visible. If the website visitor is interested in the detail of the page they’ll go on to read it anyway – if they’re not interested in that detail, then they’ll likely not bother anyway and just be cross with you for confusing them or wasting their time. The author of the page then needs to structure the text according to a content template:

  1. The key fact – captured in a single sentence, what is the single most important fact this page has been created to convey – bus lane enforcement is now active in the city centre.
  2. The summary – one or two paragraphs expanding on that fact – the reason bus lanes exist at all, how much getting caught contravening in an enforcement zone will cost, and the fact that the enforcement area will be expanded over time.
  3. The call to action – a prominent link inviting the user to do the most appropriate thing as a result of arriving on this page – pay or challenge your bus lane fine.
  4. The main content – the substantial detail the visitor to the page has come to find out; details of the fact of the policy to carry out enforcement being one which be being gradually expanded around the city, guidance on how to recognise bus-only areas and a note that difference precise restrictions apply in different places (so a reminder to be careful to look at the signs), a reminder that it is drivers’ responsibility to make sure they’re not about to drive into a bus lane, information about how enforcement is happening, and links to further information.
  5. Further information – background detail on the underlying policy behind the implementation of enforcement, benefits to the council and to the citizen expected to result from the policy, and other additional details about bus lanes and their enforcement.

Aspects 1-4 above belong together on the same page, in that order; content fitting into point 5 belongs on a separate page, or a series of separate pages – and indeed those pages themselves if possible should in turn themselves structured according to that principle of progressively revealing more detail on the page.

Content for a page should not be shoe-horned inappropriately into this structure; for example some content may not have an obvious call to action arising from it, or other content may not have a single important key fact or be appropriately summarised in one or two paragraphs – but when preparing content for the site always use this structure as a starting point, and be prepared to be challenged where it doesn’t follow it.

This may seem an obvious statement, but there should neither be too little nor too much content on the page for the audience and intended outcome; the average reader should feel like they have gained information from visiting the page, whilst at the same time the page should not contain so much information that they just run away immediately – comparing for example the page about Gift Aid on the HMRC website with the one on www.gov.uk shows this well – if you already know there is such a thing as Gift Aid, you are not going to be any the wiser about the process from the latter page (and if you don’t know, you’re probably not going to now learn about it by stumbling across that page), whilst probably the only people not to be completely put off by the former will be professional tax accountants! Seek always in the first instance the middle path, except where the page is for true experts.

The philosophy underpinning the above structural principle is a form of progressive enhancement, and is tied into to a mobile first strategy.

Mobile first

In the early days of emerging mobile access to the web, with small screens and it being difficult to type into, the general philosophy of mobile provision was for a separate mobile site containing a cut down version of the content. In the modern era with much improved displays and capabilities of modern phones, plus the mass market penetration of intermediate devices such as tablets, we can no longer assume that mobile users only want to carry out web activity when on the move away from home, and we can confidently provide a richer experience to mobile users than previously. At the present time at least 40% of many sites' traffic is coming via mobile devices; this may be the peak or it may become a higher proportion still in the months and years to come – but it is unlikely to ever drop below 30% in the future.

A mobile first strategy means we adopt an assumption all information and functionality that users need to carry out can be accessed on a reasonably mid-specification modern touchscreen smartphone. If they are unable to complete the whole of the task on their mobile device, the page needs to give them sufficient information to reassure them that this is the correct page to come back to in order to transfer to the desktop environment at their convenience, ideally they would be able to hand off the progress they've made on their mobile device to the larger screen without having to start again from the beginning – thus, the visitor should be able to gain some value from having visited the page on their mobile device, with added value for those who have visited on the desktop.

The value of every page

Our website visitors are busy and important people; our website editors are also busy and important people. Accordingly, every page on the site should have a value – a good reason for you having created it in the first place and be continuing to maintain it, and a good reason for the citizen to have come to it and read it.

Each case is different, but the intended outcome will in most cases be the best measure of the value of an individual page. Is the page intended to result in somebody making a payment, booking something, or reporting something via a linked webform rather than them phoning up the contact centre to do so? These are the highest value pages. Is the page intended to help somebody get more value out of visiting, investing, working, or living in Birmingham as a result of visiting the page? These are also very high value pages. Is the intended outcome to turn the un-engaged citizen into an engaged citizen, and the engaged citizen into a more engaged citizen? These are quite high value pages, too. Is the page an explanation of who the team are, what they do, and pictures of them? Hmmm, these maybe reasonably valuable pages, depending on additional context and placement – them being located in the section of the website devoted to explaining the council structure as part of citizen engagement would tend to increase their value, whilst being more prominent in the section of the website devoted to delivering the service than the actual service delivery information would tend to decrease their value. Vanity content has little value on the site. Is there no real intended outcome from the page? Is it just a page containing a graphic of a poster campaign which just happens to have been done some time ago, with no additional contextual information? These will be the lowest value pages, which would probably be considered trivial.

Redundant, Outdated, Trivial, Essential

All content on the site should be regularly checked for whether it is Redundant, Outdated, Trivial, or Essential.

Contrary to some messages which have been previously been received, we are not seeking to have a wholesale cull of content purely in order to reduce the number of pages on the site by an arbitrary number.

As above, all content on the site must prove its value in some way; it is particularly important though to determine which content is essential – the essential content is content which won’t necessarily have the most attention paid to it, rather it is content which come what may must be ensured is properly maintained. Examples of essential content could be:

  • Information about statutory services,
  • Information which the council has a legal obligation to make available,
  • Information that the council or service area has highlighted as being for particular strategic or political focus,
  • Information about a high-volume form which we want people to complete rather than phoning up about,
  • Information which we know attracts significant call volume from people phoning up to find.

It stands to reason that if a piece of content is essential, then a high degree of attention must be paid to the presentation of it; a complex legal or consultation document included as an attachment should have a Plain English abstract as an executive summary, outlining what the document is about and why it is important.

Trivial content is that content which seems to have no real purpose of interest to citizens, whether they are ordinary citizens or experts in the field. Examples of this include:

  • Welcome from the service director,
  • Explanations of what a team does,
  • Archive photos of old poster campaigns,
  • Explanations of basic facts which most people living in the modern world ought to be expected to know.

Whether or not content is trivial will usually be contextual; the welcome from the service director will be inappropriate for content under residents, but will probably be relevant to content in the council structure section of the site; if the service provided by the team is dependent on the web visitor knowing who the team is and what they do, then clearly this is not trivial; archive photos of events or poster campaigns are trivial, but archives of documents of conferences which attenders may need to refer back to will probably have value for one or maybe two years after the event.

Outdated content should need no explanation:

  • Projects which have long been completed or abandoned,
  • Teams which have been restructured several times since the page was written,
  • Projects which are still ongoing, but that the page relating to the project hasn’t been kept up to date to reflect recent developments on it.

Redundant content is content which effectively clogs up the information space for the user, causing the user to need to carry out unnecessary extra clicks, misdirecting them along their journey, causing additional delay to the user in completing their task or worse still, causing them to give up the task uncompleted:

  • Pages which say ‘this content which used to be here is now on a different page’ – if that’s the case, the new content should have been put on the original page at the original url in the original menu structure replacing the original content, rather than a new page being made,
  • Pages which are part of a group of several pages each containing just one or two paragraphs of text which could all instead be more effectively conveyed on just one page with all the content together – do not be afraid of the scrollbar; users are perfectly happy to scroll down a reasonable length of page when they can see the content warrants it,
  • Pages which are about something which has no connection to Birmingham, the council, or the work of the council.

Niche content helping to build good search engine visibility or that serves a clear need

Some content which might on the face of it appear to be either trivial or redundant we know from the context or purpose is actually far from such – either because we know from from our access and search statistics people are looking for it, because it contains information we know people frequently ask for by phoning up for it, or because we simply know it’s information we should be providing because, to coin a phrase, ‘it stands to reason’.

Part of the reason to maintain content of this nature is because although it might not be directly related to a council service, it’s still information about the city which users have an interest in knowing – and, so long as we can be sure the information we provide is authoritative and accurate, our general good positioning in search engine results means that if users find that information they’re looking for on our site, once they’re here there is the opportunity for them to stay here and be encouraged to learn about the things they can do on our website which are part of our services, thus encouraging them to do so online rather than by phoning us up.

Local history information is a good source of search-engine-generated traffic of this nature – in Birmingham's case, our pages about the history of the canals are the most obvious ones; Salford City Council has its page on the history of Eccles cakes, and following an appearance on The Great British Bake-Off Haringey Council put up a page containing a recipe for Tottenham cake which resulted in a significant upswing of traffic to their site.

Pages containing ‘interesting facts’ can also result in traffic being driven to the website as a result of user searches; a once-popular page on the Birmingham City Council website was the main page for Highways services, which as well as listing the specific service information links also used to contain the facts about how many miles of roads Highways maintains, and how may thousands of traffic lights, street lights, benches, and traffic signs there are in Birmingham. The audience for this information? Children doing their school Geography projects, who before the information was put on the site were making a steady trickle of phone calls to the council asking for this information!

Be wary of just creating pages of facts with no contextual or additional information though – instead, embed this information on main pages for the service area so that it is clear what else the visitor can do online that they might also be interested in doing. Never create such content in the form of FAQs.

Why Frequently Asked Questions are not

The FAQ format is a handy aide-memoire to be used as advisor guidance by council staff members sitting in neighbourhood offices or at the contact centre, but it’s a much less satisfactory method of conveying information to the public – it’s lazy, and rarely comprehensive. In the context of advisor guidance, it’s usually information the advisor already knows, and is present in order to jog their memories; the advisor probably doesn’t need to refer to it, but if they do they consult it sufficiently frequently that even if they haven’t memorised the full content they’ve memorised the order of the questions on the page. A citizen web user on the other hand if, for example, their Local Housing Allowance doesn’t cover their rent, is unlikely to know that the answer to what additional help they may be able to get is on the second page of the list of FAQs; furthermore, also on second page  of the LHA FAQs is the Question, apparently Frequently Asked, ‘What is Local Housing Allowance?’ – this is basic information which should be covered in the introduction to the page!

Instead of artificially and arbitrarily breaking up information into a series of – from the user perspective – random questions and answers presented in a random order, instead turn this information into proper English prose structured according to the content onion described above.

Front-load page titles and links, and list alphabetically

Always order lists of links or services etc alphabetically. Any other ordering which might be obvious to you or your service director will be completely opaque to the user, and will just appear to be random – which will make it much harder for the user to find the relevant link within the list. Be especially resistant to resist requests to order links in some form of popularity order – the fact of any given service being the fifth most popular in that list will not mean anything to the user when they themselves are looking for it.

When creating page titles and lists of links, it’s tempting to write them in the order verb-noun, ie ‘pay council tax’, or ‘report a missed bin collection’, because after all, that’s the natural language of people, isn’t it? However, when a user is scanning along an alphabetised list, a sea of ‘request a…’ or ‘report…’ isn’t going to help them, so once they see that the list is alphabetised and front-loaded, they will switch their mental focus from the report they are wanting to make to the fact that it’s a pothole they are trying to report, so will then much more easily see ‘pothole – report’ in the list of links.

There are rare occasions when you might deviate from this, where there are pages which might be duplicated in function if not in content across other areas of the site – for example, you might have a page which itself is a list of the common forms related to that service area, which you can put first on the list, or you might have a contact page (which you can call ‘contact us’ rather than ‘us – contact’!) which should always appear at the end of a list. The golden rule is consistency, learnability, and predictability.

Page length

How long should a page be? The unhelpful, but true, answer is ‘as long as it needs to be and as short as it can be’. Don’t fall into the trap of the quote (attributed variously to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, and Voltaire) which goes ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’.

On the other hand, whilst you don’t want to overload people with excess words, people have come to the page for a reason, and you don’t want to leave them coming to the end of the page unsatisfied. Think back to the era of Ceefax, and how frustrating it was to read a screenful of text that due to the constrictions of the format meant you learned little more about the story beyond what you’d already learned from the headline.

As above, always consider both the audience and the purpose of the page when looking at whether it’s the correct length, but since numbers are often helpful to content writers as targets to aim for:

  • 200 words makes a good introductory text for something; pages should not contain fewer than 200 words – if this is going to be the case, consider instead whether the topic could be combined with other topics onto a single page,
  • 500 words should usually be enough to give the casual and interested user enough information to satisfy most of their information needs on the topic, and
  • 1,000+ words is suitable only for a page containing serious information intended for the serious user who needs to know all the details of the topic at hand. Pages with this amount of content should be liberally scattered with relevant headings amongst the text to enable easy scanning.

Images

They say a picture paints a thousand words, and a well chosen picture can bring colour and life to an otherwise dull page.

If a picture paints a thousand words, are they the thousand words you want to say? Just as a well chosen picture can bring colour and life to an otherwise dull page, a poorly chosen picture can turn what was an interesting and informative page into one which is at best tedious to read through and at worst a complete car crash; bland or cliché stock photography images of paper cut-out people holding hands, expensive looking pens, piles of money, close-ups of telephone buttons, and the obligatory group shot of people in hi-vis jackets and hard hats on a construction site smiling and pointing at large plans are the worst offenders.

By all means do use images to liven up your pages, but please avoid clichés. Think ‘does this image genuinely enhance the content of the page, or does it just get in the way’? Only use sharp, well colour saturated high quality images taken with a decent camera, never use blurry washed out images taken with a cheapo phone camera.

Make absolutely sure you have written permission which you can produce immediately if challenged before including an image you have not created yourself on any council web page.

Logos

Many events and initiatives are done in conjunction with external partners; it’s traditional to include their logos in a block at the bottom of the page.

A small number of logos isn’t so bad, but when it becomes more than five in a block, we really would rather you didn’t. If it is absolutely a condition of funding that all ten logos are displayed on the page, be sensible about it – ensure they are all the same visual size (design and shape permitting), that they are all clear and any text is still legible whilst at the same time ensuring they are all reasonably small so as not to dominate the page, and that the visual spacing between them is equal; be aware when spacing that some logo image files issued by organisations have the logo flush with the edge of the file whilst other files will have spacing in the file – so use your eyes and a ruler to measure spacing rather than relying on butting files adjacent to each other.

Most organisations will have brand usage guidelines applying to the usage of their logos, which they should send to you when they send the image files – the most relevant part of them for your purposes will usually be the part relating to exclusion zones. Take extra care with these when combining multiple logos on a page – the purpose of exclusion zones is to ensure a logo isn’t crowded out by other design elements, and the purpose of brand usage guidelines as a whole is to ensure an organisation’s logo and brand isn’t shown in a poor respect. However, with many organisations’ brand usage guidelines if they were all followed strictly to the letter on an image block containing multiple logos, the result would be an ugly mess making all the brands look bad. For safety, consult a professional designer in these situations.

Attachments

Assume as a starting point that attachments are banned.

There are four valid reasons for including attachments on the site:

  • The attachment contains a long form that the user is being expected to fill in (for which there isn’t an online form equivalent) – in these circumstances the attachment must be a Word document, and never a .pdf document,
  • The attachment is a leaflet or a brochure which has been set by a graphic designer, for which the design and layout is as much an essential part of the information to be conveyed as the text; this might also include a poster intended to be printed out and pinned to a wall,
  • The attachment is a long policy document or similar that would be impractical to turn into a series of web pages, and that would be impractical to read online, which the user is more likely to want to print out or send to their eBook reading device and read in sections at their leisure, or
  • The attachment is a data file such as a .csv or Excel document which the user is as likely to want to interrogate and manipulate as they are to want to simply look at.

Apart from the first example above (for which the first question must be whether it could realistically be turned into an online form), even if the content is appropriate for an attachment, any attachment should be included on a page only with an appropriate introduction giving sufficient information for the user to determine whether they want to spend their time downloading it and opening it – for the second example, a simple description of the attachment and any information from it will suffice; cases of the third example should be accompanied by a substantial abstract of 500 – 1,000 words in the form of an executive summary of the content, and the fourth examples should be accompanied by a description of the file and the key summary of the numbers presented in a table on the page.

Attachments which the webteam judge to be unjustified should not be published.

A website to be proud of

At the end of the day, we all accept that few people are going to come to our website to read all about the customer services performance statistics as a leisure activity.

However, if by treating all our content as if people will read it for pleasure, as if it matters to us that they read it and digest it, we will achieve a website to be proud of. And, indeed, maybe they will start to become more active and engaged citizens as a result, as well as being more inclined to transact and find information online rather than making expensive phone calls – and better still, tell their friends to as well.

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

Brought to you by simon gray.

Please note! This is work in progress - if you have come across it by accident you're free to stick around, but please be aware not everything will work as intended yet. I have a To do list.