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User needs and revolutions

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User needs and revolutions

In 2010, Martha Lane Fox (the UK’s Digital Champion at the time) completed her review of the government’s web offering. In her letter to Francis Maude she said:

There has been a reinvention of the internet and the behaviour of users in the last few years. Digital services are now more agile, open and cheaper. To take advantage of these changes, government needs to move to a 'service culture', putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments. (my emphasis)

This idea of creating government digital services based on ‘user needs’ was new for the public sector.

For the private sector, not so much.

Martha understood what the private sector was doing well and translated it for the public sector.

So what’s all this ‘user needs’ business?

I remember when I was first asked to write a piece of content based on a ‘user need’. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

I’d been writing public sector web content for years. This work was based on looking at the information, organising it logically, writing it as clearly as possible and then getting it out there (eventually, after it had been signed off by several layers of people and trundled its way through some unfortunate content management system or other).

Writing for the private sector was different. I’d done a bunch of that too, and in fact soon realised that I already knew how to do what was being asked.

User needs and the private sector

With private sector content strategy, 'user needs' is old news - though they don’t call it that.

You have to think about your customers and potential customers if you want to create a successful content strategy. You don’t just have to think about them, you have to get to know them enough to understand their needs.

You want to get the right people to your site, help them understand why the product or service is of benefit to them, and encourage them to take the decision to buy it; or take the next step towards what will hopefully eventually be a purchase (e.g. contacting the organisation to find out more).

If they hate your content, they won’t read it. If they don’t read it, they can’t buy your stuff. Let’s unpack that from the perspective of user needs.

As a writer, you need to understand the audience (i.e. the market for the product or service you’re selling), then design your content to appeal to them.

1. You ask yourself who exactly you’re writing for

Advertising agencies spend a great deal of money working this out until they have various customer ‘personas’ to give to their writers.

A persona will be something like:

Alice is a 32-year-old working mum. She buys her groceries at [some large supermarket name] and has just started doing this online. She’s a member of the local gym but she never goes. She spends £34 a month on hair products and works at a high street bank 3 days a week.

2. You ask yourself what Alice is looking for and why

Every salesperson knows that if you want to sell stuff, you don’t talk about features. Instead, you talk about benefits.

In short, you talk in the customer’s language about how your product or service will benefit them in their lives and help them do what they want to do.

You have to do this from their perspective or it doesn’t work.

For example, from the company’s perspective, product X:

  • comes in a small bottle
  • is made of polyglycerolic whajjamacallit
  • costs £320

These features mean little or nothing to the customer. What’s in it for me?

Turning these features into benefits, you end up with something like:

  • it fits neatly into your handbag so you can use it throughout the day
  • it won’t stain your clothes
  • it’s only for the truly discerning customer who wants to look and feel their best

3. You look at the evidence

Website usage is closely scrutinised. Usually, the success of the content will be judged by how many people went from looking at the website, to clicking ‘buy now’, to actually completing the purchase. Sometimes there are other goals but they’re always clearly defined.

How this relates to public sector content

We write user needs in the following way:

As a … (e.g. ‘self-employed person’)

I want to … (e.g. ‘file my tax return)

So that I can … (e.g. ‘avoid nasty fines’)

We work out who the audience is, then we look at what they want to do and why.

This is similar to the private sector approach, only we’re not trying to sell anything or compete with other sites. We’re simply meeting the need - as quickly and effectively as possible.

We use various tools to find out:

  • what the user is looking for
  • how they’re articulating their need
  • what the different elements of that need are

If we’re looking at a larger or higher-profile piece of work, our user research team will do more in-depth testing too.


If the user doesn’t want to do something, they aren’t looking for it, so there’s little demand. A page that doesn’t meet an actual user need, even if it theoretically meets a presumed user need, will show up in our data.

The web made it relatively quick and very cheap to publish things. So we published things. And then published more things. We published more and more until the user had to wade through a swamp of government content to find the thing that actually met their need.

When we were looking at content on Directgov and Business Link we found there was a lot of content on there that users simply weren’t interested in. It was there, but no one looked at it. So it didn’t make it onto GOV.UK.

It’s not surprising that Martha Lane Fox concluded we needed ‘revolution not evolution’. But like most revolutions, this one didn't come out of nowhere.

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  1. Comment by slpw posted on

    Great insight into a user journey and it's great that government organisations are following the lead set by private sector websites, after all if they do not deliver they will fail, this is the mindset that government websites need to get into especially local government.

  2. Comment by Joanna Blackburn posted on

    This is a really helpful post, Padma. The democratisation of web content publishing has had many benefits, but has also borne many bad practices. By focussing on meeting user needs first and foremost, you get rid of the 'noise' many hefty websites often suffer from, but also become a trusted service or source of information for your audience.

  3. Comment by Tine stevnhoved posted on

    Here's a nice post on the problems with user stories. Also worth a read:

    • Replies to Tine stevnhoved>

      Comment by Padma Gillen posted on

      Thanks for the link Tine. An interesting post. My focus is on content and for content I think it *is* helpful to think about who the audience is as well as what they're trying to achieve. I agree you have to make some assumptions when doing this initially, but you then test those assumptions with real users once the content is live and adjust where appropriate.

  4. Comment by DaveP posted on

    How can the Public Sector use Advertising Agencies as a comparator?
    They pray on people’s venal aspirations, NOT their "User Needs"

    You can't 'sell' Tax returns, pensions or passports – only provided the best thought through, ‘aggregated’, information available in a monopoly.

    • Replies to DaveP>

      Comment by Padma Gillen posted on

      Hi Dave. I agree there are some massive differences between public and private sector. I don't think the motivations between the two are always so different though - some businesses genuinely want to help their customers meet their genuine needs and improve their lives.

      But regardless of motivation, I think it benefits users if the people in the organisations putting out goods, services or information into the world have thought about those users, rather than just themselves.

      • Replies to Padma Gillen>

        Comment by DaveP posted on

        My experience of working in the private sector is that they DO want to help their customers... Help them to part with their hard earned cash. Can you imagine the manufacturer of a 'Sports Hydration' drink saying that tap water with a pinch of salt is just as good?? It's called "Doing a Ratner". 🙁

        I don't disagree about the targeting of websites to the correct audience, and making the 'journey' as simple and a painless as possible. I just have an issue with folks who champion aspiration 'Emperors new Clothes' above providing a vital service as frugally as possible.

    • Replies to DaveP>

      Comment by Gerry posted on

      Yes - ad agencies ruthlessly focus on user needs to maximise profit. It means that internal opinions don't decide what goes on a website. The content is focused primarily on what the user needs to take the desired action, be that to purchase something in the private sector or to consume information in the public sector. Making that desired action a priority is key GOV.UK's approach means you don't get meddling ministers or pen-pushing bureaucrats saying what should or shouldn't be published, and things only go on the site if it's useful to the public. In that way it's good that the public sector has looked to ad agencies.