Skip to main content

What we mean when we talk about content design

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design

Sarah Richards is Head of Content Design at GDS. We sat down with her recently to ask some simple questions: What is content design? What difference does it make?

In light of the chat we had with our accessibility expert Josh Marshall a few weeks ago, how does good content design result in better communication between government and citizens?

In this short interview, Sarah summarises what content design is all about, what its job is, and how it's used on GOV.UK.

You can listen to the full interview (just under four minutes) in the embedded Soundcloud widget below. There's a full transcript below that. Alternatively, you can download a copy from the Internet Archive.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @escmum

Follow Giles on Twitter: @gilest

Don't forget to sign up for email alerts


Sarah Richards: My name is Sarah Richards, and I’m Head of Content Design here at GDS.

Interviewer: Fantastic. What is content design, and why do we do it?

Sarah: Content design ... Traditionally you may have had an editorial team, but we want to distinguish the difference between just writing information and presenting the user with the best information possible. It’s not just writing any more. We take a user need – so something that a user will need to find out from government – and we present it in the best way possible. That could be a calculator, a tool; it could be a video, it could be anything. It doesn’t have to just be words. That’s why we call it content design.

Interviewer: When I spoke to Josh Marshall a few weeks ago, he said improving the quality of all the written content on GOV.UK has made more of a difference than anything else:

It's changed the perception of how government talks to its citizens.

How did we do that? How did we change that perception?

Sarah: Basically, it’s just writing clearly. We found that if we use a lot of adjectives and describing words, people will think it’s spin, and they’ll think it’s jargon. Or if we use jargon we lose trust, so people don’t come to us, they go somewhere else. We are the authoritative, trusted source, or we should be, so we find that if we just write very plainly, very clearly, very directly, everybody understands; we make the English very easy to understand.

A lot of people get fixated on accessibility being just about screen-readers and putting transcripts on videos; that’s not it. Accessibility is about opening up all government information to anybody who is interested enough to look. That means that we need to write very plainly, very clearly and very directly.

We need to take into account that people are on a range of devices. They generally don’t have enough time to look at what they’re doing. Interacting with government isn’t a pleasant thing. It’s not a case of ordering a book and getting a nice shiny gift for your coffee table; it’s about either getting money or giving money, or your rights, or something. We need to take all of that into account when people read.

Our research shows us that people only read about 20-28% of a page, so we have very little to play with, actually. We need to get that information across quickly. That’s what we mean by accessible; it’s not just about disabilities, it’s about opening government information to anybody who wants to be able to read it.

Interviewer: Writing this clearly is not something that comes naturally to government, so what was the hardest thing about making that happen; making that be the default?

Sarah: Culture change. Actually, we can write style guides, and we can write technical guidance on how to do these things. We can show research; we can show lab testing, and users failing or doing very well with copy. We can do all of that, but the thing that is the hardest is to get into people’s minds that there is another way of doing it, or there is a better way of doing it.

Or even harder, actually, is to try another way, which may not work, and throw it away and be completely okay with that. That is actually probably the hardest thing.

It’s also about taking something, and you may not have stats and metrics on it, because it’s new, and so trying something and just being completely prepared to throw it away.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Andrea Ozark posted on

    You don't solve the perceived problem of people reading only 20-28% of a webpage by only giving us 20-28% of the information we need and then making us click away from the page (sometimes up to as many as a dozen times) to get the rest. Simpler, clearer, faster? For yes. For us as users, no, unless we're doing a very, very simple 'transaction' as you call it. Be truly radical and stop following what's increasingly appearing a cost-saving exercise that provides less than the bare minimum.

  2. Comment by Birch posted on

    I think its great how the the .GOV.UK website is continually trying to make the information easier to read, its a much better improvement on what we had previously with

  3. Comment by simonfj posted on

    That was nice Giles (shouldn't you have the title of "your roving reporter":)

    It's funny. The same discussions go on around in the "instructional design" traps. It's just impossible to have one design for every student regardless of how succinct or verbose the writing. e.g. Whether one uses "sir" or "dude" as a form of address makes such a difference.

    As Sarah says, the GDS' content team is still in 'editorial team' mode. (the old "publish and be damned" approach) So one size must still fit all. But that changes as communication hubs (between citizens/users and service designers) develop around various services. e.g. At the moment, there are links from individual pages (Is there anything wrong with this page?) into the black hole, which is one approach. But it's when the link says "did you understand this page?" and takes a reader to an online forum where they can clarify their understanding, or meet people with the same next questions, where the cultural change happens. The 'delivering' transforms into 'sharing' services.

    Cultural change usually start happening when any "back end" is opened up. At the same time, it's a bit useless trying to encourage people to experiment, if they haven't some place to go and see if their ideas have been tried before, or are being tried by some other department or government. So "sharing a knowledge exchange" is absolutely necessary, especially if the same public purse it paying for the education.

    Reinventing the wheel is not just a UK government specialty.

    Thankfully, writing a verbal nomenclature unhindered by inconsequential derivatives of a particularly technical nature, and containing distractions by digressive circumlocutions, which, as we all know, are simply illustrations and embellishments of pretentious periphrasis, does not appear to be encouraged by the GDS.

    • Replies to simonfj>

      Comment by Giles Turnbull posted on

      Thanks for that - yes, the knowledge sharing is absolutely necessary. It's one of the things we say all the time: "Make things open, it makes them better." And we're still in early days so perhaps the feedback mechanisms may well evolve to become more community-focused, as you describe. (I suspect we'd do a lot of user research first...)

      Oh, and I'll ask my boss about the job title.

  4. Comment by Anne posted on


    As somebody who works for HMRC and has been involved in the fact check process I find your comment disingenuous and unfair to HMRC. To simply pass the blame to HMRC for the inaccuracy of GOV.UK content is plain wrong.

    I've been involved in lengthy discussions with GDS via an HMRC category manager about the content on GOV.UK that I have an interest in and have been met with an obstinate refusal on the part of GDS to reconsider, as the changes that make the content factually correct doesn't meet the rigid GDS style guide. I've correspondence from GDS telling me that we can't say 'may' - we have to say 'will', even when 'will' isn't the case.

    I won't be giving my real name or email address as experience tells me this will cause me nothing but trouble. Sad, but true.

    • Replies to Anne>

      Comment by Carrie Barclay posted on

      I'm really sorry you feel you have had this experience, and we would be happy to work with our HMRC web colleagues to ally any concerns you have. If you don't want to give your name or contact details, we will still pass on your comments and will work with them if they can see any areas that need addressing.

  5. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    Thanks for responding Carrie - and for accepting my comment. DWP handle most of the benefits with dependencies on tax credits, so you might be better off talking to them. But my point was a general one.

  6. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    Unfortunately content on .GOV.UK is often simplified to the point of being misleading - there is strong whiff of content being mucked about with by editors lacking in domain knowledge.

    Compare two pages on the effects of tax credits on other benefits. Benefits and tax credits are mainly handled by two separate departments: HMRC and DWP, so it's an area where we would hope .GOV.UK might improve on its predecessors.

    At HMRC we have:

    Some benefits you might get are 'means tested'. This means that the money you get depends on:

    how much you've got coming in - your income
    how much you've got in your savings

    When your benefit is worked out, any tax credits that you (and your partner if you have one) get might be counted as income. This could be Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit or both. The benefits that may count tax credits as part of your income are:

    Housing Benefit
    Income Support
    income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
    income-related Employment and Support Allowance
    Pension Credit

    The more money you've got coming in, the lower these benefit payments will be. Sometimes they may go down to nothing

    If you get any of the benefits listed above, they may go down to nil if you claim - and get - tax credits. Whether it's Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, or both, it could affect your other benefits.

    Even if your benefit payments do go down to nil, you can often get at least as much money overall as you were getting before. And as long as you qualify for tax credits, you may still get other help, such as free school meals or free prescriptions.


    It's .GOV.UK counterpart is shorter and balder:

    Child Benefit payments aren’t affected by any tax credits you get, but other benefits like Housing Benefit are.

    If you get tax credits, you’ll get less:

    Housing Benefit
    Income Support
    income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
    income-related Employment and Support Allowance
    Pension Credit

    Contact the office that pays your benefits to work out how tax credits affect your benefits.

    Whereas HMRC suggests that tax credits *might* count as income and means-tested benefits *may* be reduced .GOV instructs us that they *will* be reduced - which is highly misleading. Sometimes the listed benefits *will* be lower after claiming tax credits, sometimes they won't. Sometimes it's entitlement to of one of the above benefits that means that maximum tax credits can be paid, rather than the other way round.

    Worse still. .GOV.UK omits the crucial information that you will nearly always be better off overall by claiming tax credits, even if your means-tested benefits *are* reduced as a consequence of claiming.

    .GOV.UK goes on to say:


    Other help you might qualify for

    Getting tax credits doesn’t affect your right to:

    Child Benefit
    prescriptions and other health-related costs
    vitamins, milk and food if you’re pregnant or have a child under 4
    maternity costs - you may get a £500 payment (called a ‘Sure Start Maternity Grant)’
    school costs - help with school meals, uniforms, transport and trips
    funeral costs
    court fees, legal costs and prison visits


    This is only really true in relation to child benefit. Unless another qualifying benefit or general right applies, entitlement to the others is contingent variously upon entitlement of child tax credit, working tax credit, the elements of any working tax credit award and the income upon which the tax credits calculation is based.

    The HMRC page could certainly have been improved. There is some redundancy, and it would have been useful to say which tax credits affect which benefits. But its counterpart at .GOV.UK is plain, simple and wrong - and people may make poor decisions as a result.

    A couple of general points. Firstly, for all I know the .GOV.UK page came straight from HMRC and was uploaded without alteration or scrutiny. It may not be fair, but as a member of the public I will see the content on .GOV.UK and assume that GDS is responsible. Secondly, you talk about being an authoritative, trusted source. I do not think you can achieve this by presenting things as being simpler than they actually are, however much we might wish otherwise.

    • Replies to Tim Blackwell>

      Comment by Carrie Barclay posted on

      Thank you for your comment. All our content is checked by the responsible department so we will pass on your comments to HMRC so they can improve the accuracy of this content if necessary.