Alpha This is a new service – your feedback will help us to improve it.

Contributed by

NCVO logo


The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) champions the voluntary sector and volunteering. They provide expert support and advice to over 14,000 member organisations.

As part of a partnership project in 2019, NCVO created a fresh set of guidance for small organisations. The guidance helps them to make sure that they do safeguarding well. Its purpose is to help them understand their responsibilities and how to act on them.

To do this they tested several different types of content with the people who would use it. From those tests they designed a set of rules to use when laying out content of this type. They called it the “What to do” content pattern.

The pattern describes how to use elements like headings, lists and examples. It helps the people writing content to be consistent and meet users’ needs.

Some of the elements used in the content pattern

Recipe status

This recipe has been in use since September 2019.

We are not sharing this recipe as the perfect solution to a problem, but we believe NCVO’s learnings could be very useful to other organisations.

Users and needs served

  • As an organisation seeking advice, I need guidance so that I know what I should do
  • As an organisation seeking advice, I need to feel confident that the guidance is right for me/my organisation so that I can act on it
  • As an organisation seeking advice, I need to get advice as quickly and easily as possible so that I can spend more time getting things done

Software and tools used

The “What to do” content pattern

A content pattern is a set of rules about the elements you need in your writing and how to use them. NCVO built on a pattern that Citizens Advice Bureau and GOV.UK use. They adapted it so it meets the user needs they found during their research.


It’s free for any organisation to use.


You can use the content pattern in almost any website or app build or content management system as it contains common elements like headings and lists. To use this content pattern well you need:

  • A way to share it with anyone who is writing for you
  • To use it with a style and tone guide. This will make sure the language you are using is also right for the people you are helping


Wagtail is a content management system that NCVO are transferring their content to.




There may be a small cost to change your website or content management system so that you can use the content pattern. However, most systems will already include the elements you need. This includes most templates in free website builders like Wix or Wordpress.

You may need to make some choices about how the elements look to fit best into your website brand.

Recipe steps

1. Understand your user needs

You need to get to a good understanding of what people accessing your content are looking for. You can work out their user needs by carrying out some user research.

NCVO’s Safeguarding project had user researchers working with 20-30 different people who wanted to know more about safeguarding. They created 4 different ways of displaying the same information and observed people reading them. They also also watched people googling and responding to other content on the web.

This step is even more important if the people who need your advice are vulnerable. Then there is a stronger possibility that you need a different content pattern.

2. Understand the “What to do” content pattern

Most recipes would send you to get hold of your tool next. This one doesn’t have its own home on the internet. So we have set it out here:

The pattern has 7 elements - each part is helping to meet a user need:

A main heading

The main heading helps people work out if they are in the right place. The heading helps them answer the question “is this content going to help me achieve my goal?”.

A second level of headings and a content list

This helps people start with the piece of information they want most. The content list at the top is also another way for them to decide if the content will help them achieve their goal.

A bullet point style

Bullet points are a tried and tested content pattern. They help people take in information and lists of actions they need to take.

A paragraph style

Some short paragraphs help people understand the content. People don’t want to read only lists.

A pull quote, box or other style for displaying examples

Examples are a key way of making people feel that content is relevant to them. But if you have examples in your main flow of text it will be too long for most readers. Separating examples and keeping them short is important.

A clear marker for internal and external links to more information.

You should only use these in the last paragraph of any page (or as an exception at the end of a section) to provide a next step. Links all over the content make people feel uncertain “as if I was writing a thesis”.

3. Set up your website or content management system

You can use elements from the existing system you have. You may decide to do some small usability tests to decide what looks best or use any design patterns you already have. NCVO changed the colour of the example box because the original strong blue colour stood out too much.

4. Use other writing guidance

To use the content pattern well, your team need to use:

  • the content pattern
  • your tone or style guide. This should include direct language, simple english and short sentences as a minimum.
  • a list of other needs (often topic based) that each piece you write needs to meet

NCVO have a detailed style guide that is well researched and well used. It focuses on simple english. It works hard to balance an informal style with an authoritative tone.

5. Test your work and improve it

If you can, test with the people the content is for to see if your content meets their needs. You can do this in many ways. Never ask people if they like the content. Try one of these instead.

  • Ask people to read something and summarise its most important message

  • Ask people what they will do next after reading something

  • Give people highlighters. Then ask them to mark content that was helpful or confusing in different colours

  • Give people a list of tone words and ask them to mark which ones fit

NCVO tested with front line staff who support people that will use the content and with people who will use it. They used a mixture of all these types of tests. The tests confirmed that the style and content pattern helped people find what they need.

The testing also showed where individual pieces of advice could be clearer, which NCVO then concentrated on improving in the editing phase.


It takes time to persuade people to take to using a content pattern. You need to make sure that everyone writing for you has easy access to it and can see some examples of it being used. You will also find some people struggle to believe that the content pattern is better for readers than the way they would prefer to write. Testing with users can help you convince them.

The process of researching the content pattern also highlighted some other things about what users need. If you plan to use it, you may find these helpful.

Charity content often introduces a subject or gives some context first. Most people skip this content. They start getting irritated if they have to click through more than one page that does this.

People’s attitude to following links is a complicated question of trust. NCVO found that users followed links to more well known and trusted sources even when the links were less relevant. NCVO suggest that you take care to avoid this problem when describing links.

NCVO chose to rely on headings, bullet points and white space to make text easier to read. This is because people respond to images in polarised ways. Some people say “oh that makes it easier to read” but others say “they get in the way” or they begin to ask questions about “what is that image trying to say?”. NCVO decided they did not want people to have to make an effort (cognitive load) to “read” images . They also recognised that you need a lot of time to find the right images.

This doesn’t mean it is always wrong to use images. If the people you test with respond well to them you should consider using them. This is more likely if you are supporting a group with very similar experiences rather than a wider audience.

People really didn’t like numbered lists. So unless the thing you are talking about is carried out step-by-step in order, don’t use them.


The biggest risk is relying on this content pattern when it doesn’t match your user needs. For most groups the potential harm is quite mild. “They didn’t find it very useful”.

For more vulnerable groups the risk is more serious. “The content was overwhelming and I felt worse from visiting your website”. If you believe this could be a risk for you then you should do more research. You can also use the Snook library of design patterns for mental health and borrow some of those.

NCVO’s project covered safeguarding advice for people in an organisational role. The partnership talked about future projects helping the public understand their rights. This would have needed a different content pattern.

Points of contact

For further information about this recipe, you can contact:

Kat Quatermass
Service and strategy designer

Eleanor Dean
Digital content and experience manager


Many thanks to NCVO for contributing this recipe.


This recipe is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

That means you are free to copy, redistribute, and build on the text of this recipe, but only for non-commercial purposes (if you want to use it for commercial purposes, get in touch with us at [email protected]). You must give credit to both Catalyst and NCVO and link back to this page. If you build on this recipe then you must share your version under this same licence.

Recipe published on June 11th, 2020. Last updated June 11th, 2020