Writing for the user

In my post ‘Push vs pull content’, I talked about internet users ‘pulling’ information to them. Users have something they want to do, something they need. They think of a word or phrase, put it into a search engine, look through the results, choose the one they think is relevant and off they go.

Then the user can stay on or leave the site, but whichever option they choose, it’s based on their initial need – what they need right now.

Users are selfish

It’s all about them. Really. You barely even figure in their thirst for knowledge, search for pictures of kittens or online application etc. It’s harsh, I know, but if you think about it, you probably act in exactly the same way on the web. To make you feel better, you do occasionally matter in their online experience: when they are deciding whether to trust you or not. But other than that, it’s all about them. So to make your content successful, you have to put yourself aside and focus entirely on your user. If you don’t, there is a very stark truth ahead of you:

  • it’s hard, if not impossible, to find your site,
  • you will lose them easily if they do make it to your site,
  • your competitors will thrash you.

How to speak ‘user’

I’ve already talked about killing content audits and finding your audience’s vocabulary, so I’ll assume you’ve done that and are ready to look at your top tasks.

At GOV.UK, there’s a ‘user need’ for every piece of content on the business- and citizen-facing side of the site. They all start with a template like this:
As a….
I want to….
So that….

Then the gaps are filled in based on the task that has been identified by data, analytics or new government policy. For example:

As a mother of 3 children,
I want to find out if I am eligible for child tax credit,
So that I know if I should apply.

Simple? Mostly. But this could go wrong. You need to make sure your user needs aren’t too wide:

As a mother of 3 children,
I want to find out about child tax credit,
So that I can get it.

At first glance, that user need is understandable – it is what most people would have in their minds. But this is when content design becomes psychology – you’ll need to understand how the user is really breaking down the tasks (or not) so you know how to structure your content.

‘Finding out about child tax credit’ is okay until you realise there’s a lot of information on the subject, like:

  • applying for it,
  • eligibility,
  • phone number to talk about it,
  • the policy behind it,
  • other benefits/taxes that might have an impact on your application for it,
  • a calculator to work out how much it might be,
  • instances when you might have to pay it back,
  • what happens when your circumstances change,
  • what to do if you’ve just got a letter about it and you are confused about something

… this is just the start of it and you can’t put all that information on a single page. (At least, I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Break down the user need

You need to break down your user need into specific tasks and work from there. So, for this example, the thought process for one user may be:

As a mother of 3 children,
I want to find out if I am eligible for child tax credit,
So that I can apply if appropriate.

The journey and information will be completely different for another user who might think:

As a mother of 3 children who has child tax credit,
I want to find out what to do because my salary has gone up,
So that I know if I need to do anything so I don’t break the law.

Sometimes you’ll have information that’s related, so you might want to put it on the same page – like eligibility, how much it is and how to apply. But you’ll need to watch length and overall content design.

User-centred content

Without knowing the actual ‘user need’, you can’t really structure your information in a user-centred way, so you are missing an important part of the relationship with your audience.

If you keep your user’s primary goal in mind and get them to what they need as quickly as possible, you are respecting their time and attention, which means they are more likely to recommend you and/or come back.

Sarah Richards

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