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.
Many thanks to NCVO for contributing this recipe.
Do you have thoughts on this recipe? We would love to hear from you.