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It's all about the words

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design, GOV.UK

When people talk about web design they sometimes take good editorial work for granted. We've already talked about how we are identifying user needs and content titles for but this post looks at how we are developing our editorial approach.

 You can't please all of the people all of the time

One of Directgov's main principles was to simplify government language, but it also tried to cover all eventualities.  This often meant that the content was full of caveats and jargon, making it hard to scan (and we know that people tend to scan not read).

Trying to cover all bases meant that we often bombarded  users with information that most simply didn't need. For we are working to make sure that users can find relevant content, read, understand and leave. To achieve this our content needs to be:

  • easy to understand
  • easy to retain
  • easy to act upon (where possible - government can be complex)

We want to help our users easily understand:

  • our information - do users understand that they get  x benefit if they apply within 30 days of x event?
  • their legal obligations, rules and rights
  • how to complete their tasks (either a transaction or information)
  • and trust the information so they won't have to phone to contact a call centre to double-check

Tone and style

Our editorial principles are built around being informative, succinct, reassuring, brisk (but not terse) and most importantly focusing on what you can usefully tell people they can do.  We won't be giving advice so, for example, we may tell you you can get a divorce by filling in a certain form and going through a certain process - but we won't be covering how you tell your children.

The common case

We will be 'designing for the common case'. That means we will take information that affects most of our users and putting it up front. If you are an edge case or exception - perhaps affected by something that only affects 100 people in the whole of the UK - then your information will still be there - it just won't be in the first paragraph.

And we will be tracking and monitoring site activity so that if we get something wrong we can improve it quickly.

The Journey

Directgov was an amazing start to the long journey to bring Government web content into one place.We are taking everything we learned and building on that understanding. We know that:

  • words matter - understanding our audience, using the right terms and trusting our editors means that users get the right information in the most digestible format
  • understanding matters - understanding content is more important than covering every eventuality
  • iteration matters -we will keep evolving the style guide, presentation and content design as we learn

Our editorial motto could best be summed up as - understand, remember, act - that's what we want our users to do - but there is only one way to find out what works: test it.

Sarah Richards is one of the lead content designers at GDS

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  1. Comment by Turning Government inside out « Clear message posted on

    [...] This is no copy and paste job. Content is added according to principles about language. [...]

  2. Comment by Smart answers are smart | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] to the content strategy of the citizen beta of is hiding complexity and building tools before writing content. Much [...]

  3. Comment by Creating videos for GOV.UK | Government Digital Service posted on

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  4. Comment by Writing simply: language choices for the GOV.UK navigation | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] editorial content of the site (which is brilliantly clear and tight, a really nice job, already written about by Sarah Richards) and the language of the navigational elements; the error messages, the help [...]

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  8. Comment by Louise posted on

    Thanks for replying Sarah.

    Having worked for Businesslink in the past, I wish you the best of luck with the project!

    Some of the key stumbling blocks we came across when trying to create new and update content were:
    Numerous re-writes of content as policy owners needed to check content before going live. With complicated areas such as Tax and international trade, tweaking wording to make it more user friendly can (in the policy owners eyes at least!) alter the meaning of the content and make it incorrect. Who will have final editorial control? Who will 'own' the content?
    It sounds like the content people you're working with in government are really bought in and proactive. When I first started working on Businesslink, many of the government teams I worked with saw the site simply as a mechanism to ensure information was available so they could fine people for non-compliance, rather than a mechanism to help and guide people to find the information needed to be compliant and self-serve. Do you think two GDS content designers going forward will be enough to cover all content on all departments?

    Probably the biggest obstable was content dual located on Businesslink and government websites. Whilst many departments did remove content and just have department information on their sites, several kept the content available on both websites. The biggest department who did this was HMRC (taxes). I won't go into the plethora of reasons they gave, but editorial style, editing and publishing processes were just some. This was totally against the Varney vision of a single website but no-one seemed to have the authority to decide what should be done. The Varney review highlighted a number of websites that had content to be moved to Businesslink or This list was never updated, and many departments created new microsites/content that were then excluded from needing to be converged onto BL or DG.
    What remit does GDS have to ensure everything will be found in one place (and not dual-running) from launch and going forward, and will have a consistant style?

    I'd be interested to know if GDS will also be resonsible for online marketing in anyway. Currently different departments may be bidding on the same keywords for similar campaigns. Is this the best use of public money?

    Sorry if I'm sounding a bit cynical, but I'm getting a feeling of deja-vu!

  9. Comment by Francis Bacon posted on

    What about video and audio? As well as written words are you planning to have either of these for people who find it difficult to read?

    • Replies to Francis Bacon>

      Comment by Sarah Richards posted on

      Yep, we're creating video versions of the content.

      We are working on accessibility as a whole - not just assistive technologies, but making all the content accessible and *understandable* for all.

  10. Comment by Sarah Richards posted on


    Thanks for your comments.

    Business content
    We are going to follow the same principles for business content: clear, concise and focused on user need. The tone will be appropriate for the users but won't exclude if the user is not an expert!

    We have been extremely lucky to have content designers from all government departments working with us. Many are in the same office and all are working on shaping the product as well as the content.

    The departmental content designers have the task of making sure their content is up to date and accurate.

    We have a 'second pair of eyes' function - the same as a sub in most publishing houses - which consists of two GDS content designers and a government department content designer. In this way, we are keeping an eye on style consistency.

  11. Comment by Louise posted on

    Great to see you're using learnings from and that you're not just starting from scratch. Are you also looking at information and learnings from Is your tone going to be the same when talking to consumers as when talking to businesses? I know that a lot of businesses have found the direct gov tone overly simple and at times patronising.

    Who are your editors? Are they from government departments? If yes how will you be ensuring the style is consistent? And if not, aren't the costs of outsourcing editing high, and how will you ensure the information is up to date?

  12. Comment by David Pomphret posted on


    If you need anyone to 'test it', please let me know as we do have some public facing web pages that need to be agile thus not compatible with Directgov.


  13. Comment by Luke posted on

    Sorry to hijack your great post, but will you be following the call by WordPress to help stop SOPA/PIPA.

    Your view would be greatly appreciated.

  14. Comment by Alex Coley posted on

    It's pretty much the same as Directgov with the addition of (acting on) site tracking and common case. Good to see this shared publicly though. Interesting to see how this works with the subject of tax.