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 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. 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 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:


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.


…‘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 on what services should look like. The best bits are again mighty worthy of reproduction.


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


Tell HMRC about a change to your company car.

Instead of:

File an HMRC change request


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.