Today marks the launch of the alpha release of the GOV.UK editorial style guide. Sarah Richards, Content Design Lead on the Delivery team explains why this is important and how it has and will develop and evolve.
When writing for GOV.UK, we aim to make government web information as easy as possible to understand. Consistent standards are vital, so we have developed an editorial style guide setting the rules for the tone, language and presentation of all content.
You – our users – inform this style guide; it’s yours. We base our decisions on the language and reading behaviour you use. So now is a good time to tell us what you think – please post your comments below.
One size still doesn’t fit all
GOV.UK will cater for varied audiences trying to complete a wide range of tasks. For example:
- citizen and business-related tasks (we label this ‘mainstream’ content) – like apply for a tax disc or find out about redundancy rights
- research – the ‘Inside Government’ part of the site will take you through the inner workings of government: the policies, consultations and publications
We have a common guide for the whole of GOV.UK, covering the basics for anything under the GOV.UK url. This gives us a consistent feel across the whole site.
It includes how to:
- deal with acronyms and abbreviations for accessibility
- make it really obvious when a user ‘must’ do something (legal language)
- talk to multiple audiences within a single topic
But we also have smaller parts to the guide that are audience specific.
Arguments about points of style are decided on a basic principle: “what does the user say?”
We find out what users want and the vocabulary they are using. Then we try it out.
For example, we spell out acronyms the first time we use them on every page. Then we use an abbreviation tag in the HTML to spell out the acronym for any other instance on the page. This came from user testing we did earlier this year on the citizen-facing GOV.UK content. We know that users can and will arrive anywhere on GOV.UK – search engines provide “deep links” into the content of websites – so the acronym has to make sense with little or no context.
We don’t make style decisions on a whim. Although, if there is no evidence one way or another, we go with gut-feeling and add it to the ‘to be tested’ list.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” Albert Einstein
The style is about writing clearly, concisely and without jargon. Everyone can benefit from simplicity. Some people have previously seen this as ‘dumbing down’ but being open and accessible to everyone isn’t ‘dumb’ – it’s our responsibility.
This document will evolve – and has done so even in the past couple of days as we’ve been preparing it for public release. For instance, we’ve made changes to the guide because of testing results on the recent Inside Government beta. But the key message is that we are also still defining formats and styles so you will see changes regularly over the next few months. So please take a look and let us know what you think either via comments below or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.