Be brave with your content design

The role of the content designer has changed. Before, a business or a subject matter expert used to write something then hand it to us for a few hours copy-editing before it went live. This just doesn’t cut it anymore.

The competition for readers’ attention online is now so intense that no-one can afford to publish poor content.

To do our jobs properly, we need to be involved at the start of the process. We’re content experts and while we don’t own the message, we own the user experience. (In many organisations, this sometimes still feels like a distant dream.) So we’ve all got to find ways to be brave, step up and help people use our expertise properly.

Start with user needs

When someone hands you a piece of content to work on, it’s probably already had a lot of people

working on it. It might have been signed off by the CEO and the lawyers. Maybe people will tell you

that ‘it’s always been done this way’. Everyone will think it’s finished.

It’s not.

But there’s something about a written document that can make it feel ‘done’ – sometimes, a written

page is harder to own than a blank page.

The best tool to use to help you resist the power of a completed document? The user need.

Check the user story and the acceptance criteria for this piece of work. If you’re in a government

department, you’ll may have to get out the trusty Post-Its and write these yourself.

The user story will set the structure for the whole piece of content.

Trust the process

You and your content team probably have a well-established process for producing content. Trust

the process! Take what you’re working on and go through every step.

Once you’ve got the right user story and acceptance criteria in place, do some keyword research so

you’re using the right language. Then, follow the basic rules about using plain English and writing

well for the web.

That ‘finished’ piece of content probably looks radically different now.

Try working in pairs

Working in pairs to collaborate on a piece of content can produce really good results. It’s an Agile

tool – software programmers use it to improve the quality of code and cut down on delivery time.

Work with someone at the design stage. (Don’t wait until the proofread at the end, as that’s too

late.) As well as writing excellent content, you inspire each other, share knowledge, and you’ll get a

more consistent tone and approach in your team.

Don’t be scared of ignorance

When you first start working on something new, you’re probably unfamiliar with the subject matter

to begin with. That narrow window of ignorance is a gift – grab it with both hands! This is your one

chance to see through the eyes of your users, who also won’t know they’re reading about.

Question everything you don’t understand. (You’ll sometimes find no-one else understands it,

either.) Be rigorous about this. How else are you going to bring clarity to what you’re writing?

What if you get it wrong?

The truth is, we’re all going to get it wrong at some stage.

Track your content, so you know where you’re failing and how to fix it, fast. Keep iterating and


And one thing you can be totally sure about is that, if you have followed the process, you will have

got it more right than it would have been.

Using links in ‘how-to’ content

When should you use a link in copy? How many links should you use on a page? What happens when a user sees a link?

We know lots about the technical aspects of using links on websites. But it’s hard to find solid advice for copywriters about when to use a link and where to put it.

Links work differently in different kinds of content

In commercial content, the end goal is to sell something. You’re trying to hang on to readers, using links to lure them deeper into a site and entice them back to your core proposition.

But we’re thinking about ‘how-to’, instructional or information content, like government guidance. Here, the goal is for people to get what they need and leave as quickly as possible. We’ve got to use links in a different way.

What happens when a user sees a link?

Links are visually distinctive. They act a bit like subheadings. People use them to help them scan the content on a webpage.

So the first thing someone will do with your links is use them to see if they are in the right place – on the right web page, or in the right section of a page.

That means you should only use links that are are salient and relevant to the content on the page. Links that look random will confuse people.

It also means that clicking on a link is really a secondary thing for users. First, you have to convince people to read; then they might actually click on a link.

Make links relevant to your users

So, how do you make links relevant to your users? In instructional content, only use a link that supports the user journey at that point. That usually means:

  • giving users something they need to complete a task
  • linking to supporting information
  • triaging people who should be somewhere else

Give users something they need to complete a task

From the MOT testing content on GOV.UK, here’s a great example of giving users something they need to complete a task:

(They should call it something like the ‘MOT appeal form’, though.)

Here’s another good example of helping users complete a task – linking to contact information:

Link to supporting information

Linking to supporting information is trickier because it’s tempting to chuck a whole load of these links in. So only link to supporting information if:

  • people need it to understand what you’re saying on this page
  • it offers a level of detail that some users will need

This is a good example of when to offer extra detail.

And here’s a link for people who can’t understand your page without reading something else – what’s an enforcement notice?

Help people who are in the wrong place

It’s fine to triage people who may be in the wrong place – for example, breadcrumb links can be used to help your users to immediately understand where they are on your site. If they’re in the wrong place they can then make a choice about where to go next.

Click here!

There’s plenty of advice about how to write good anchor text. (And yet, so many otherwise good writers seem to ignore it.)

Here are a few rules that aren’t often spelled out:

  • don’t ever, ever, ever use ‘click here’
  • frontload – people only read the first 2 words
  • to strengthen a call to action, use commands to tell people what to do (like ‘read’)
  • don’t hyperlink too many words or a whole sentence – it’s hard to read
  • say exactly where the link goes
  • if in doubt, hyperlink the nouns

Where to put links

Write links in running copy (‘inline links’). That means users will find them as they need them. They also help people scan a webpage, acting as little signposts to explain what the paragraph around them is about.

Inline links work well in mobile content. They help people navigate without having to use dynamic page elements (like buttons) that eat up bandwidth.

Don’t add a list of links to the end of a page or a section – people probably won’t read that far.

How to use links to fill people with rage

There are some things you should never do with links, or you will seriously annoy your readers.

Never say one thing and link to something else.

Don’t keep linking to the same thing in one piece of content.

Don’t link to anything people can’t get directly to (like anything behind a password-protected firewall.)

Check it works!

People don’t read

It’s true! People don’t read. At best, they’ll read less than 30% of your (brilliantly researched, skilfully crafted, elegantly honed) copy.

We all know this, right? We all know about the F-shape – users scanning briefly down a page, only reading across when something salient grabs their attention. We know that they hop around in sentences, like over-excited bunnies, skipping 30% or so of each one.

Most people will give your page about 15 seconds of their time.

But people really, really don’t read

This was brought home to me recently when I watched 17 hours of video showing users ‘reading’ pages on the GOV.UK website.

Users missed an unbelievable amount. There are some simple design features that appear on lots of GOV.UK pages – like metadata showing the date and type of a publication. Users missed some or all of this. Or they saw it on one page and not on another, identical, page.

They miss sidebar navigation. Page titles. They miss links, logos, call-out boxes, you name it.

It’s enough to make a copywriter weep.

People scan – accept it and write for it

We all know the golden rules of writing well for the web. But there are some elements on a web page that specifically help users when they are scanning – like signposts.

It’s worth taking extra care with these.

How to help users scan your web page

Think about the structure of your content from the point of view of someone who’s scanning it quickly. They are checking to see if this is the right page for them. What are the signposts they are likely to see?

The most attention-grabbing structural elements are:

  • headings and sub-heads
  • bulleted lists
  • captions
  • links

Frontload headlines and subheads

These are your best chance to feed information to scanners. Do your keyword research, and use keywords in your headers.

People will be scanning your page for the words they used in Google. If they see their keywords in a nice big bold subhead – bingo! They’re in.

Use 5 words or less and front-load them. Use as many sub-heads as you need. Try writing them first.

Use bullets properly

Users like bullets because they:

  • jump off the page
  • are concise
  • are easy to read
  • signpost what the page is about

So, don’t just shove a bullet point at the start of a long, convoluted sentence. Don’t use sub-bullets, either. It’s defeating the point.

Write bullets that are a just few words long. Front-load them. Only use a few bullets in a list, and only a couple of bulleted lists per page.

Make sure your bullets reinforce the message for scanners: “This is what this page (or section) is about!”

Write proper captions

People are more likely to read a caption than any body text, especially if the image is good and relevant.

This is a golden opportunity to bang your message home. Write longer captions – 2 or 3 lines – like newspapers do. People will read them. (It’s astounding.)

Use links carefully

Use links and link text that help users work out what this page is about – as with bullets.

That means you should only link to things that are directly relevant to what you’re writing about. Read how to use links in content.

Be smart with structure

Keep paragraphs short. Remember, every time you start a new paragraph you create white space.

Single-line paragraphs can work well.

Scan the page yourself

Try and scan the page yourself. Only look at the structural elements we’ve talked about here.

Can you tell what the page is about without reading any of the actual copy? If so, your work here is done, and you’ll make a lot of quick-scanning readers very happy.

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