How to write tangle-free government guidance

It’s easy to get in a tangle writing guidance for GOV.UK. Usually, it’s because too many people want too many different things from one piece of content. As a content designer, you need to know how to manage this.

Tangled webs of guidance, policy and spin

Imagine the government is launching a big new scheme – say, grants for small businesses. You’re the content designer tasked with getting information about this onto GOV.UK.

You think you’re writing guidance for business owners, telling them how to get the money. The policy teams think you’re also explaining the policy behind this new scheme. The ministers think you’re doing all that and also explaining how this specific policy supports the wider aims of government. And the press office want to tweet it.

The result? Everyone’s unhappy.

Especially the user – that business owner, who has to untangle the messy mix of guidance, policy and spin.

There is a better way

Here’s one approach to stop the mess from happening:

  1. Get your user stories straight
  2. Think about the whole user journey
  3. Map all the information to different products
  4. Only say what people need to know right now
  5. Ask a lot of questions

Get your user stories straight

As ever, start with user needs. In our imaginary scenario, there are at least 3 users: the business owner, the policy researcher and the press.

Write user stories and acceptance criteria for all 3 users.

Understand the whole user journey

To get the right information in the right products (and the right products for the information), you need to know the whole user journey. For example, the business owner will also need:

  • an application form
  • an email telling her if she got the grant
  • a contract to sign, if she does get the grant
  • etc

Even if you’re not writing it all now, you need to know what goes where. That means you need access to the wider project, so you can design the information to fit the user journey.

Map all the information to products

Armed with your user stories and the user journey, you can map information to products. For the GOV.UK content, you’ll end up with something like a detailed guide plus application form, a policy paper and press announcement (tied in with a ministerial speech, say.)

It can be helpful to show policy teams your content maps. It’s reassuring to see that every piece of information has a logical home.

Only say what people need to know right now

Think about what users need to know at specific points in their journey.

For example, that business owner might need to know which complex EU structure is funding her grant, if it limits which other grants she can apply for. But she doesn’t need to know that now – only if she actually gets a grant. So, that information goes in the communications for successful applicants.

Ask a lot of questions

It’s easy to miss or misinterpret things. Spend time learning about the product. Reading the source material is not enough – read between the lines. Ask.

Sometimes, what looks like policy outcome (“These grants are to help small businesses grow”) is actually a requirement (“To get a grant, your business must spend some of it on hiring 2 new employees”) – or vice versa.

Question everything.

How to convince people you’re doing the right thing

I’d like to say there’s a clear, widely accepted role for content designers in all this. The honest truth is, this way of working is still very new in most government departments.

You’re pathfinders. You’ll probably have to do this on your wits alone. And it can be very hard work.

Here are some tools that will help.

  1. Explain what you’re doing, and why. Now that we’re on a cross-government platform, we’re all required to meet these new standards. Remind everyone that we’re all on the same side and that these conversations are happening all over government, right now.
  2. Meet with people, if you can – speaking to people face-to-face makes it easier for them to accept your role and expertise. Try pair writing with someone on the policy team.
  3. Get policy teams to help write the user stories and acceptance criteria. Then you’ve agreed the overarching principles that set what you can say in your guidance. This also helps people understand what needs to be cut.
  4. Strictly control your copy when it’s going through QA and fact-check. Explain to people exactly what you want from a fact-check: checking for factual errors, not style issues. Don’t let SMEs rewrite, or revert to what they’d written originally. Hint: don’t send Word documents to fact checkers.
  5. Remember, you are responsible for the user experience. This is your job, so don’t feel shy about doing it!

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