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Let’s face it, in 2013 Gov.uk has featured in the forefront of many people’s minds as a flag bearer for great design and digital change. Continuing this trend, Thursday last week saw Gov.uk release the next section of its alpha style guide.

If you don’t have a style guide, or you have a fusty old copy in a shared folder no longer in use, or even worse, just a printed copy in a folder, well now is the time to update it and watch standards soar.

This style guide (part of GDS's seven wider design principles) is still being optimised but now includes sections on ‘writing for Gov.uk’, ‘writing for the web’, ‘style points for various content types’ and a ‘transactions style guide’. 

It's interesting that Gov.uk realises the style of the guide itself is important. Continuous work on improving navigation and keeping content up to date is as important for the style guide as for the wider site.

If information and guidance isn’t up to date, or the guide is not easily engaged with, errors carried forward will persist. 

Let’s take a look at the new style guide and see why it stands out, as well as what you can appropriate for your own organisation’s style guide. I hope you'll agree with me, that when a style guide is done well, it's actually a lot of fun to use, with more prescriptive advice on grammar reading as dead pan as a Stewart Lee gag.

It’s easy to navigate

Improving the style guide was done by asking users for feedback. You can see a call to action below that is still live on the guide. 

Guidance for different content types was something that users requested, so GDS has done that, improving the navigation to help users find what is relevant to them. 

It’s not done

On the GDS website, it says: 

We know this isn’t perfect. We know we have a lot of work to do to add more content, make the navigation better, make it look better. We’re working on it. Meanwhile, the content on it is correct and up to date, so be assured that it is the latest style guidance.

Letting people know a style guide is a work in progress is a neat way of reminding the organisation that everyone is invested in the progress of content creation. The org is constantly moving forward.

It’s part of a bigger plan

Gov.uk has a set of seven design principles, which the style guide sits within. These seven principles are worth investigating, though they’re far enough reaching that I’m not going to do so here. 

The important point here is organisational support for a style guide. Gov.uk clearly has a well-defined mode of operation, when using data, when designing services, down to copywriting and the more prosaic parts of a style guide. 

If you don’t make sure your style guide has good foundations, it’s easier for it to be put in the long grass. The whole organisation should be aware of your style guide. 

Of course, there is tons more to explore in the style guide, so take a look, and start planning your guide. Make 2014 the year of user ease and website consistency.

Writing for Gov.uk: my favourite bits

This is the most enjoyable part of the style guide. If the person that compiles the guide really knows the organisation in question, the dos and don’ts should be instantly recognisable to users, and induce lots of knowing smiles. Every org, whether full-on publisher or no, is capable of its own unique style of, ahem, ‘BS’, and a style guide should try to prevent this.

Here’s a selection of my favourite bits:

Use plain English

We..lose trust from our users if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon

We can do without these words (abridged):

  • agenda (unless it's for a meeting)
  • deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)
  • deploy (unless it's military or software)
  • dialogue (we speak to people)
  • foster (unless it's children)
  • leverage (unless in the financial sense)
  • slimming down (processes don’t diet – we are probably removing x amount of paperwork, etc)
  • strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)
  • tackling (unless it's rugby, football or some other sport)

 Always avoid metaphors. For example (abridged):

  • drive (you can only drive vehicles; not schemes or people)
  • drive out (unless it's cattle)
  • going forward (unlikely we are giving travel directions)

On concision

You should:

  • use contractions (eg can’t)
  • not let caveats dictate unwieldy grammar – eg say ‘You can’ rather than ‘You may be able to’
  • use the language people are using – use Google Insights to check for terms people search for
  • not use long sentences with complicated sub-clauses

(Note: words ending in ‘–ion’ and ‘–ment’ tend to make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be.)

On addressing the user

…We have over 116,000 items of content in departmental and policy areas. There’s over 3,000 pages for citizens and businesses. Check that the user need has not already been covered. That doesn’t mean check the information you have – it means check the user need.

...Duplicate content confuses the user and damages the credibility of GOV.UK content. Users end up calling a helpline because they aren't sure they have all the information.

If there are two pieces of information on a subject, how will the user know if there’s three and the user has missed one? We also fight with ourselves for search results if we duplicate information.

If something is written once and links to relevant info easily and well, people are more likely to trust the content.

Writing for the web: my favourite bits

Some great advice here. My favourite nuggets: 

Simplicity

Look at popular information sites like the BBC, The Guardian, Oxfam or Lonely Planet. You'll see their content is easy to read and understand.

They use:

  • short sentences
  • subheaded sections
  • simple vocabulary 

Where to publish

You have a website, so you publish everything there. Right? Not necessarily.

Think about where your users go. Do they visit blogs, forums, partner sites or social media? Why not talk to them there too? If all you do is publish on your site, you’re always working to get users to visit it.

Reading

…‘front-load’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points. What this means is: put the the most important information first.

For example, say ‘Canteen menu’, not ‘What’s on the menu at the canteen today?’

Transactions style guide: my favourite bits

Service managers have clear guidance from Gov.uk on what services should look like. The best bits are again mighty worthy of reproduction.

Instruction

Tell users exactly what you want them to do. Don’t invent words to ‘sum up’ the user action.

Example:

Tell HMRC about a change to your company car.

Instead of:

File an HMRC change request

Requests

Only ask what you need to know.

Before you start building your service, write out a list of the information you need from the user and why you need it. For example, ‘need to know their income so that we can subtract income over £100 a week from benefit paid’.

This will force you to think through each piece of information you’re asking the user to give you. Remember, just because it’s in your current service, doesn’t mean you need it.

Number of questions

Keep the number of questions to a minimum.

For example, instead of asking users 10 questions about their personal circumstances you can group these into a checklist.

Example: Your circumstances

Use: Which of these apply to you?

Choose all that apply [from this checklist]:

  • you have a spouse or partner.
  • you’re registered for Self Assessment.
  • your household income is £30,000 or more.

The checklist is simpler for users than 3 separate questions:

  • are you married or in a civil partnership?
  • are you registered for Self Assessment?
  • is your household income £30,000 or more?

Make a great style guide the priority for your organisation in 2014.

Ben Davis

Published 17 December, 2013 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (5)

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Harry Gardiner

Is it wrong that I was genuinely surprised our government has done such a good job at not just designing a fully functioning and easy to navigate website, but also then creating a style guide for how others should do it? It's truly impressive, especially considering all the troubles we've been hearing about with America's health care sites.

Politics aside though, it's a fantastic guide to writing on the web, thanks for sharing the highlights.

"Continuous work on improving navigation and keeping content up to date" is exactly what every site owner should be focussing on, and these guys do it well!

over 2 years ago

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Georgia Rakusen, Senior Account Manager at WhatUsersDo

I'm really excited to see this, it is great to have the gov.uk site lead the usability, design, function and user experience charge - rather than just follow the existing (and not always effective) common standards. It demonstrates a true commitment to the 'user' - every citizen.

over 2 years ago

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Phil Welch

An impressive guide - and good to see that the government is thinking about these things, as content is so important.

Is it picky of me to say that, good though this is, it'd be improved by referring to their audience as 'people' rather than 'users'? The tone of voice in every other aspect is warm and friendly, but 'users' just seems a bit impersonal.

over 2 years ago

Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman, Director of Client Strategy + Services at White Hat Media

Looks good - and well written piece, Ben. Catch is doing all those things with decent level of resources. (Something odd happened with the iPad for my first entry above... I guess someone's working on that UX :-)

mark.

over 2 years ago

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Sarah Richards

Phil: you are probably quite right. I'll take a look at that when I am back in the office (and not eating all the mince pies within a 50ft radius).

Sarah
(Head of Content Design at GOV.UK)

over 2 years ago

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