Give information only when it’s needed
People don’t read, understand and remember information if they’re given it at a point where they can’t act on it. Understand the journey - only give information people need at that point.
Only ask for the information you need
Only ask for personal details if it’s essential - this is the law and not a guideline.
If you do need to ask your users about who they are, make sure you:
- ask for ‘full name’ in one field - not everyone has one first name and surname
- make no assumptions about how people want to be addressed - ask them
- use ‘gender’, not ‘sex’ if you must ask for a person’s gender
If you need to ask for a name in a different format (perhaps because of an old system) use ‘First name or names’, ‘Middle name’ (only if needed) and ‘Last name’.
Be active and direct
Write concise content that is clear about who does what and lets people get on with what they need to do.
Good: Active sentence: Send your invoice to the finance manager.
Bad: Passive sentence: The invoice is sent to the finance manager.
Let people decide whether they’re in the right place quickly
People pay more attention to content that’s near the top of a page, so it’s important that the titles describe what the page does. By stating who content is for and what it will help them achieve early on, it makes it easier for people to decide whether to continue reading it.
Assure people that they’re in the right place or allow them to get out quickly.
Make content easy to scan
People often skim read, looking for words, headings or links that will help them achieve what they came to do as quickly as possible. Design content so that it’s easy to scan by:
- using short sentences and paragraphs
- using subheadings and lists to break up walls of text
Reflect the words people use
Research how our audience refers to things by speaking to them, finding relevant forums and using search data. This might not be what we call things internally.
Using the words people use means they can find the content, and that it makes sense to them.
Test the content
Test what content works through:
- user research
- content crits with colleagues
Address the user directly
Where possible, address the user as ‘you’. Speaking directly to the person who is reading the content makes it quicker for them to relate to what you’re saying and understand what they need to do.
If someone must do something, make it clear. Words like ‘should’ or ‘could’ add an element of doubt.
Use clear titles and subheaders
Headings should be short, precise and reflect the task or piece of information.
They help people decide whether to read on.
Good: Book a holiday Check your payslip Buy a funeral plan
Bad: More information Further help
Choose what you’re going to call things and stick to it. Calling the same thing by different names can confuse people.
An example At Co-op we use “sign in” and not “log in”. If we used both of these terms then people might think they are different things.
Make weak verbs strong
It’s clearer and more direct to say ‘decide’ not ‘make a decision’. Or ‘test’ rather than ‘perform a test’.
Tell people where they are in a process
People should know where they are and what is going on throughout their journey. This gives them confidence and creates trust in the service.
Research where in their journey people need to be communicated with and do it in a way that suits them.
Don’t tell people how they should feel
Avoid words like ‘quick’, ‘easy’ and ‘convenient’ - we don’t know whether that is true for them and we shouldn’t make assumptions.
Reflect how people see things
We often have an in-depth knowledge of the subject we are writing about. This can be at odds with what the person reading knows or believes.
Design content to reflect how people see things by:
- answering their questions
- using the language that they use
- being clear about what they need to do next
Be friendly but not over familiar
Be friendly when communicating, it makes the content more human so it’s easier for people to interact with us. Don’t allow that to get in the way of being clear, simple and to the point. People who come to our content may:
- have English as a second language
- be from different cultures
- have their own insecurities and struggles
Puns, humour or over-familiarity can lose credibility, be confusing to some people and be insensitive to your audience’s personal circumstances.
Use plain English, including with specialists
Using familiar and clear language makes things easier for people to understand and increases the likelihood of them interacting with us.
Avoid acronyms, abbreviations and metaphors.
When writing for specialists, experts or senior staff who understand complex language or jargon, use plain English. Specialists often have a lot to read – allow them to understand that information as quickly as possible. It respects their time.
Use images to aid understanding - not to replace words
Never use images to replace text content. If you need an image to help people understand something always include a text description.
Avoid using time to set expectations
Telling people that something ‘takes xx minutes to complete’ is misleading and insensitive to people outside of the average, including people with disabilities, or who use accessibility tools.
Consider using a non-subjective description, like ‘this survey has 10 multiple-choice questions’.
Make complex things easy to understand
If you’re writing content for a complex service:
- use as few words as possible without losing the meaning – clarity is more important than brevity
- break multi-channel processes into steps to manage people’s expectations
- make it clear where people are in the process
Consider whether content is needed
Be bold and delete content that people don’t need or that they aren’t interested in. Consider whether creating more content is necessary. Content is expensive to maintain, and the quantity of content has environmental implications.
Our audience are mostly on mobile devices, time-poor and have something they need to do or know. Get the message across quickly otherwise they’ll be frustrated and go elsewhere. Each word needs to be working for its place. Edit, then edit again to pack maximum meaning into minimal content.