Writing for a citizen isn’t the same as for a customer

I’ve written web content for everyone from huge corporations to one-person start ups, and from small charities to central government departments. But for the last few months I’ve been writing ‘citizen-facing’ content (ie for the public, rather than policy-makers and other specialist audiences) for GOV.UK.

Each type of organisation is trying to achieve something particular with their web content, but GOV.UK has an unusual goal.

Writing for the private sector

When you’re writing for most organisations, you’re trying to get the user to:

  • buy something (the other goals are usually designed to eventually help achieve this one)
  • take a longer journey through the site - you’re trying to hold onto them, and give them regular and varied opportunities to buy
  • deepen their engagement with the brand - trying to turn casual browsers into regular visitors, regular visitors into buyers, and buyers into ‘brand advocates’ that tell their friends about the company

Writing for GOV.UK

GOV.UK has fundamentally different goals, and that affects how we write the content.

Engaging with the government is something you do because you have to. It’s a necessary part of being a citizen. You want to get it done as quickly and easily as possible, then get on with your life. Because there’s no profit motive, we don’t want to alter that behaviour.

How this affects the content

When we write for GOV.UK our aim is to make your experience simpler, clearer and faster.

We’ve cut the amount you need to read to be able to complete an action. Where possible, we’ve also reduced the number of steps involved in completing it.

We’re not trying to encourage you to explore the site. We’ve only included related items and links that may help you achieve your goal.

We’ve tried to make each piece of content as self-contained as possible, allowing you to complete a particular task without having to meander through the site to get all the information. To make sure that's possible, we also have to assume that you haven't arrived at a particular piece of content from the GOV.UK homepage, or even from the start of a particular guide.

We show it to subject-matter experts before users see it. If we get it wrong, they tell us and we correct it. By the time it gets to you, it should be both clear and accurate.

We’re writing for the common case, and telling you where you can get more specific information if you need it. This has been one key way we’ve tried to de-clutter the content, and make it quick to digest.

We’ve simplified, not dumbed down. If you need some information to complete a task or meet your legal obligations, we’ve included it - as clearly as possible.

Has it worked?

It's going very well so far. The content designers - that's the title we have for people who write and create the pages you see on GOV.UK - have watched a lot of user testing, and all of us have watched users trying to achieve tasks. As a result, we’ve seen firsthand where our content has succeeded and where it’s failed.

Generally, the response from users has been extremely positive - we've even had front line staff commenting that the content is much clearer. But where people have struggled, we’ve changed the content. We’ll continue to do that based on ongoing feedback, and based on the data we'll get from millions of users after 17 October.


  1. Liz Court

    Of course this is nothing new from you guys, but its still music to my ears. We're behind you 100%. Roll on next Wednesday!

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    • Etienne Pollard

      Thanks for the kind words - we're also looking forward to Wednesday!

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  2. Martin Casey

    Seems to me that the 'writing for' rules would make things better on private sector websites too...i.e. show me related items and links that help me achieve my goal and I'm more likely to come back and use your site again.

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  3. David

    Great post. I've been writing for a Gov't Dept for almost a year now and also run a freelance copywriting business. The biggest challenge for me has been the shift in perspective from 'selling' to 'servicing' when writing Gov't content. Interestingly some of the stuff I've seen from GDS is percolating into my freelance writing. When I talk to clients and mention the GDS method, more and more the clients want something similar. It's seems to me that your approach is definitely 'sticky'.

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  4. Rod P

    Like David, I have had this battle with companies and organisations who want to put everything they have ever done or said onto their website. The emphasis on user needs by such a pivotal site as will help win this argument once and for all.

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  5. BarbK

    I'm interested to know what you do when you can't make the content simple because the underlying process is complicated. Do you have the ability to ask departments to review their processes and procedures?

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    • pgillen

      We've done *a lot* of head scratching when writing the content to try to understand the essential steps or actions in a process. And by asking policy specialists how to do something from a user's point of view, I hope we're raising awareness that we don't have to keep doing things the way they've always been done. But there are so many factors involved in changing a government process or procedure that this will inevitably happen at a slower pace than our approach to digital communication.

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  6. smarthomeman

    I remain totally impressed that at last we have a government service that is totally focussed on doing the best job it can for the citizen. The rest of government has a lot to learn from you guys!

    Having said that, you do also have a role in "selling" government to the people. We have to move from a customer perception that the government is 'against' the people to one in which it is there to help, support and provide service. is leading that transformation. You should be really proud of youselves; keep up the great work!

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    • pgillen

      Thanks for the positive feedback! In terms of 'selling the government' though, while that may be a reasonable aim, I don't see that as the role of GOV.UK. We're trying to help people interact with the administration when they have to. As editors writing content for citizens and businesses, we're meticulous about keeping politics and persuasion out of it.

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  7. pgillen

    Thanks to all for the positive feedback!

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  8. TPL Web Services

    [...] You can read a post I wrote on the GDS blog about the differences between writing for public and private sector websites. [...]

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