https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2012/02/07/writing-simply/

Writing simply: language choices for the GOV.UK navigation

Hello, I’m Russell Davies, I’m helping out at GDS with the way the site looks and feels and how we explain it to users.

This is clearly way less important than getting the site to work properly and to the practical UX work of getting people to the content they need, but we thought you might be interested in some of the little language decisions we’ve made around the edges of the site.

Our first decision was to distinguish between the language of the core 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 pages, the disclaimers, that sort of thing. We’ve made those slightly different. The best analogy we could come up with is that it’s like someone handing out leaflets at an information desk. The leaflets have to be written in one style – they need to be easy to understand and they need to feel definitive – but the person handing them out can be a little friendlier and more colloquial.

Our hope is that no one ever notices the language. We don’t need it to ‘build the GOV.UK brand’ by being obviously quirky or clever and it doesn’t need to feel especially weighty or governmental. It needs to get out of the way and get you where you need to go. We’re aiming for a sort of ‘web service vernacular’ – the language we’ve all grown used to in navigating services online.

Some specifics:

Although we argued about it a lot at the beginning we’ve blithely used ‘we’ and ‘you’ throughout. ‘We’ meaning the website and the people who’ve built it, ‘you’ meaning the user. It just feels like the natural language of the web, something you don’t really notice.

We’ve avoided the passive voice as much as possible but we’ve not made a strict rule about it. The only strict rule is that the language shouldn’t get in the way. If it derails people then it’s wrong.

There are no jokes, none of the little quirks a Flickr or Moo might put in their copy. It’s hugely tempting as a way of lightening the experience but some of the material GOV.UK delivers is deadly serious and people might be reading it at difficult times of their lives, we don’t want to surround that with flippancy.

There’s not a fancy new logo or identity for GOV.UK, partly to save time and money, partly because the URL is what we want people to remember – we want them to know that GOV.UK is the place they need, they don’t have to discover or understand any new names or identities. But, to make the name feel a little more like an actual identity (or as we keep saying in the office ‘a thing’) we’ve decided to always write it in CAPS. It’s a tiny detail but hopefully it’ll help GOV.UK stick in the mind. For those who wonder if we’re wasting too much time on things like this, we talked about it for about 10 minutes.

GOV.UK capped up (in reference to http://bit.ly/yu2FGH). Image courtesy of Ben Terrett

Anything that requires technical knowledge has been written by someone who knows the subject deeply. The page on cookies, for instance, was written by Dafydd, who also wrote this blog post. All we did was add an intro for anyone who is interested in the topic but doesn’t want every technical detail.

The ‘beta-ness’ of the site was interesting to deal with. We want to be clear and friendly but sometimes we need to be quite stern and pointed – we don’t want the slightest risk of anyone mistaking this for a finished, official site. The beta warnings on every page were a lot scarier a couple of days ago but we eventually realised that since we make everyone read the disclaimer when they first arrive we could make these a little less alarming.

Finally, the language is in beta, just like everything else. We aim to iterate and improve. If there’s something you find jarring, something that’s too casual or too officious please let us know. The use of language is incredibly personal and, as Sarah has pointed out, we won’t please all of the users all of the time. But, if we’ve done something to enflame your passions – for good or ill – we would sincerely love your feedback. If you don’t know where else to start, why not try the tour.

15 comments

  1. stephendale

    I just hope that other Gov and Local Gov webbies are watching, listening and learning!

    Reply
  2. Pete

    For what it’s worth, even the rather stuffy and stilted (though unfailingly precise and accurate) IBM product documentation style uses “you” to address the reader and tell them how to do things.

    Great analogy with the information desk.

    Pete

    Reply
  3. Mike Reed

    Terrific. I’d already been impressed with the writing on the beta site, and it’s great to see such clear-headed thinking going on behind it. (Given the quality of the writing, there couldn’t have been anything else behind it.) Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  4. Heather

    I disagree that content/editorial (or ‘look and feel’ as you confusingly refer to it, which I would think was concerned more with design), is ‘way less improtant’ than how the site works. But anyway, if this post is anything to go by I don’t have much hope that the content on gov.uk will be well writtten.
    Your second para – way too long, and don’t you mean ‘and THAN the practical UX work’, ‘less important to… the practical UX work’ makes no sense, unless the practical UX work itself deems the ‘look and feel’ to be inferior.

    Reply
  5. Mike Reed

    What a shame to pick holes in this post, when the mission it describes is so important, and the work towards that mission already so successful.

    Yes, there’s an error there, but it’s minor. And this is a blog post, not an official page of the site. Also, that paragraph is only 49 words long, which is hardly excessive. Perhaps you meant that as a *sentence* it’s too long. It’s not the best sentence ever constructed, true, but I defy any sensible reader to get to the end without understanding what’s meant.

    I’d agree that it’s too modest to downgrade the importance of language in comparison to the UX work. (I would, as a copywriter by trade.)

    But if you believe that, then you surely believe good language is to be supported. The best way to do that in this case is to celebrate the transformation in Governmental language being wrought on GOV.UK — not to nit-pick at individual paragraphs of a blog post.

    Reply
  6. russellmdavies

    Thanks for the feedback everyone.

    Pete – thanks for the IBM reference – I might try and track that down.

    Heather – very sorry to disappoint and confuse, writing about language is always a risk, I hope you’ll find the language of the site more penetrable than this post.

    Reply
    • Pete

      Russell – here’s an example of the documentation for a random IBM product: http://is.gd/gA8xtK . Dig deeper under “WebSphere MQ File Transfer Edition V7.0.4.1″ on the left and you’ll see that the “task” type topics routinely say “you must do this” and “you will see that”.

      The actual style guide is not published externally and there’s the usual large-corporate paranoia about sharing stuff outside the firewall, but I could probably track it down and find a relevant paragraph or two if that would be useful to you.

      (I’m a developer rather than a writer, but I care about making our docs and error messages as useful as I can. I don’t work on the product linked above.)

      Reply
  7. Mark Hainge

    Good on you for bringing a very welcome breath of fresh air to liven up the sometimes suffocating language of government. I’m all for clear English and you’ve hit that particular nail right on the head. Well done.

    Reply
  8. mattedgar

    Lovely. This post brought to mind an old Post Office booklet inherited from my wife’s grandfather. It was published in 1951, but the sound advice still holds more than 60 years later. Their watchwords were “clear, polite, brief”. http://flic.kr/s/aHsjyBu7VF

    Reply
    • Frances Berriman

      Just the “no idle words” is brilliant as a motto. :) Thanks for sharing this on flickr.

      Reply
    • Mike Reed

      I second Frances’ comment, and have dropped you a note on Flickr, Matt. I’d love to use the PO booklet shots in future if that’s OK.

      Reply
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  12. Baghead Kelly

    Clearly a step in the right direction but its a pity the same approach could’nt be applied to legislature.

    Reply

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