People react positively when things are clear and understandable. – Dieter Rams
If you’re looking for guidance on how to write content better (or write better content) looking to the government may not seem an obvious first step.
In the UK, however, it might be a good one to take.
That’s because some smart people in there have spent a lot of time and effort trying to make it easier for people to get the things they need to do done, from applying for a new car license to filling in their tax returns.
They see their citizens as users – demanding ones that have a vote and complain if they can’t get things done. Or not – they also know there are lots of people who struggle with computers or have disabilities and also need to be able to use their services.
Which means that they are making some interesting design choices. And one of the first things they’re ignoring is a fundamental principle of marketing.
Think of any article or blog post that you read these days. It will have a pretty definite structure.
- First there will be a headline designed to get your attention.
- Then there will be a picture, perhaps with a caption, often not.
- Then you’ll have the body copy, broken up with subheads and lists – numbered or bulleted.
- There may be a sprinkling of icons and links and forms.
The idea behind this structure is that it follows the AIDA principle. The headline gets your attention. The picture and caption get your interest. The copy builds desire and finally the links or forms get you to take action.
The whole point of the page is to get you to take action – and it’s usually the action the page designer wants you to take, like signing up to their newsletter.
That approach leads to pages that are, to put it mildly, annoying. The images and other gunk increase loading times, pop-ups and nagging gizmos get in the way and the content can seem contrived and artificial.
And that’s because these pages are designed to try and do “marketing” – not meet a user need.
Take pictures, for example. If you’re visually impaired they add nothing. You can get the information you need if the page has text, but a picture is no use.
So, many government pages just don’t have any.
Instead, their guidance says this “Every part of the GOV.UK website design and architecture, and every piece of published content, should meet a valid user need.”
So what does that mean, and how can we use it to improve the way we create content for our own businesses and sales processes?
We need to start by understanding user needs – getting clear on exactly what one is and how we can meet it – and there is a model that can help.
First, get clear on who is your user
Start with the words As a … what?
For example, as a
- Small business owner
- Financial adviser
- Finance Director
- Young person
… and so on.
What word can you use to capture who your user is? What words would they use to describe themselves?
Whatever your organisation, whatever section of society you serve, you will find words that describe your users. Collect these words – that’s where you’ll need to start your content creation journey.
Next, work out exactly what they need to do
David Allen, the creator of the Getting Things Done method, calls this the next action. What, precisely, does your user need to do next?
Doing something is not the same as understanding or knowing – things that happen inside one’s head. Doing is more tangible – applying, sending, challenging.
Think of it like looking at a ladder leaning against a wall. Doing involves you climbing the ladder. Anything that doesn’t involve the action of climbing – anything that happens inside your head – does not qualify as a need.
Let’s say you own a graphic design business. Your customer, a small business owner, needs a one page flyer to promote his services. That’s a very clear need.
If you own a health and safety consultancy your client, a large manufacturer, needs a qualified person (you) to audit and sign off their systems as complying with relevant law.
If you know what they need, you can write content that directly helps them with those needs.
Your content needs to help them achieve a result
When they’ve finished their action, climbed their ladder, they’re going to get to the top. That’s their result.
For example, if you’ve helped someone with a legal claim, they’ve now got a settlement.
Your content needs to help them get to that result, step by step. If they can follow it and do what they need to do, then your content is meeting its stated purpose.
How do you know that you’ve got the result that’s needed?
You need a checklist. A list of things that helps you check if the need has been met.
The government guidance calls this acceptance criteria.
Now you can use words like understand to check if your user gets it. Do the understand how to do an application, fill in a form, submit a request for information?
Pulling it all together
If you’ve got this right, you should be able to write a sentence that sums up your user need in this form:
As a [……..] I need to [………] so that [……..] which means that [………..].
For example, lets say you want to create a page on your website listing your carpet cleaning service, you might write something like this:
As a landlord I need to get my carpets cleaned after the current tenants move out so that the property is ready for the new tenants which means that the estate agent can come in and take pictures of the property’s condition before handing over the keys.
If you do this before writing a word of copy then you’ll have a much clearer idea of what your user actually needs.
Then, what you write is much more likely to be clear, understandable and useful.