I’m now over a year behind on reading the exceptional Government Digital Service’s equally exceptional blog. Rather than just skim-reading a bunch of random articles, I thought I’d group them together into topics and write up links posts showcasing my favourites in each.

Today’s topic is content—content creation, content design, content testing, and (underpinning it all) content strategy. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has made an outstanding investment of time, money, and most of all creativity in web content, so it’s no surprise that articles on content production are some of the best on the GDS blog.

The ideas and approaches presented here can take you a long way towards being an effective leader or producer of great content.


Things we don’t talk about when we talk about content
(Christine Cawthorne)

Great title, which the rest of the piece fully lives up to!

Things we don’t talk about when we talk about content mostly involve emotions. Sentimental and fearful ones, maybe the odd angry one. Being a good writer doesn’t come from being a robot, we do need those emotions to help keep our users in mind.

So much of content creation in a large organization is actually re-creation—someone wrote this already, how do I write it again but better? Content often has a long, convoluted, even agonizing editorial history stretching back years before the current author was even assigned to it. That history weighs on the shoulders of the author and smothers creativity.

There are practical steps you can take to avoid being creatively paralyzed by what came before. Break out the post-it notes and try Christine’s content structuring exercise (scroll down to the heading “Where to start” to find it).


Helping government find user needs with analytics
(Lana Gibson)

We set [analytics workshop] attendees up with an email alert that acts a weekly nudge—the aggregate voice of the user coming into their inbox to say “Oi, this is what I need” in the form of search terms and top pages.

This is such a great idea for addressing the disconnect between the art of content creation and the science of user experience. All of your top search terms are things your users can’t find easily enough on their own. As the same queries come up week after week in the search terms email, a good content designer will be inspired by that feedback to think of better ways to connect the users with the content they ‘give up and search’1 for.

Lana’s closing sentence is equal parts impressive, inspiring, and envy-inducing:

Analytics will soon be a common language used in web teams across government to remove some of the time and effort needed to debate what users actually need by providing proof instead of relying on opinion.


What we mean when we talk about content design
(Sarah Richards, interviewed by Giles Turnbull)

Our research shows us that people only read about 20-28% of a page, so we have very little to play with, actually. We need to get that information across quickly. That’s what we mean by accessible; it’s not just about disabilities, it’s about opening government information to anybody who wants to be able to read it.

Short, inspirational discussion (in audio and transcript forms) with the Head of Content Design at GDS. Touches on what content design is, what accessibility means to a content designer, and the scale of the culture shift required to make clear writing pervasive across government.


Looking at the different ways to test content
(Christine Cawthorne and Emileigh Barnes)

Content testing (as opposed to system testing or user interface testing) is the least used and least valued form of testing in web projects, at least in my experience. The very concept ‘content testing’ feels like an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.

In this outstanding article, Christine and Emileigh introduce content testing (spoiler alert: comprehension and success are what we’re looking for) and then take you step by step through several different methods, with examples of how they were used successfully.

I haven’t picked out an extract for this link. You should read the whole thing.


It takes 2: how we use pair writing
(Sue Davis)

  1. Make sure you’re starting on the same page.
  2. Agree on a sensible structure.
  3. Write words. Get rid of jargon.
  4. Ask for input (but put a time limit on feedback).

My default view of writing in pairs is that pair writing = group writing = hell on Earth. But if you must do it, definitely follow Sue’s advice here and the four-step process she outlines.


It’s not about us, it’s about collaboration
(Mike Bracken)

Rounding off with an article that’s still strongly applicable to content creators but reaches very much further.

I stood up at the first GDS all-staff meeting and told everyone there to “look sideways”, by which I meant: don’t get stuck in silos of your own making. Talk to people, look at other teams’ walls, ask questions, seek help, seek feedback.

This post by the then-head of the GDS reads like a manifesto for how a service-orientated team should work. There are no quick tips or tools here, no miracle management techniques. The key lesson for everyone in the service is to just share and explore together—every day and with every individual or team you come into contact with.


bonus tweet

May not be applicable in every case, but I like this as a general rule for writing informational content:

  1. I like the phrase ‘give up and search’ because it reminds those of us who work on the web that your search box is not just another way to navigate your website. Your search box is the last resort.

    Of course plenty of users prefer to search, and will go straight to the search box when they’re looking for something. But for users who don’t search first, the search box is what they use when their preferred way of finding things has failed. They gave up on navigating your site and resorted to searching. Where these users are concerned, every search signifies a failure of your site architecture, and the search log is a record of that failure.