Content design: planning, writing and managing content

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Government Digital Service
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Planning content

Find out how to decide if something is suitable for GOV.UK, what the content lifecycle is and why accessibility must be planned for.

What to publish on GOV.UK

All content published on GOV.UK must have a clear user need backed up with evidence.

Content should be published either:

Content that doesn’t do one of these things shouldn’t be published on GOV.UK.

What shouldn’t be published

The following types of content shouldn’t be published on GOV.UK:

  • content that repeats or significantly overlaps with existing content
  • advice for people, businesses or specialists that isn’t specific to government
  • advertising for commercial purposes
  • intranet or other services exclusively for civil servants
  • professional training or qualifications
  • information or services that can be better supplied by organisations outside government, eg Shelter for housing information or start up donut for help with starting a business
  • legislation that’s on www.legislation.gov.uk
  • information from sites and agencies exempt from transition to GOV.UK
  • organisations and companies, like mutuals, that aren’t publicly owned
  • content only relevant to users in devolved parts of the UK (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland)

Where to put guidance content on GOV.UK

Before you create guidance content you must decide whether your users are:

  • members of the public (or small to medium-sized businesses) with no specialist skills or experience - ‘mainstream’ users
  • specialists who are trained or experienced

Guidance for mainstream users

Guidance for mainstream users must:

  • reflect the ‘here and now’ practical information people need
  • only reflect future changes if they will definitely happen and affect choices a user can make right now

It must not:

  • be aimed at a small, extremely specific or niche audience
  • require expert knowledge to understand and take action
  • duplicate content better served by other organisations (eg charities, the NHS, Citizens Advice Bureau)
  • give advice or offer opinions
  • ‘sell’ policy or promote government initiatives

Guidance for mainstream users is maintained by the content team at GDS. Please create a content request for new content or to make changes to existing content.

Guidance for specialist users

Guidance for specialist users is created by government departments.

It shouldn’t cover guidance for mainstream users. It also shouldn’t include:

  • the policy behind the guidance
  • why the guidance exists (the problem being solved)
  • how much money has been allocated to the service
  • who runs the service
  • aspirational statements about the intended outcome of the service

Some users want to know the detail of policy, but our analysis and research has shown that they aren’t the same users as people looking for guidance.

The detail of policies should be in a policy paper or in one of the other formats that help users understand what government is doing.

Content that helps users understand what government is doing

You need to make sure you choose the right content type when you create content about what government is doing.

There are over 40 content types on GOV.UK, each of which has been developed for a specific purpose.

To help you choose the right one, you should:

New government activity or policy: content types to use

These are the relevant formats to use when the government talks about what it’s doing. The following real life examples show how you might meet users’ needs for information about government policy. They’re intended as illustrations.

Top-level introductions to policy

Analysis and research shows there is little audience for top-level introductions to policy compared with task-focused guidance content.

However, sometimes there’s a need to explain government activity in brief, without going into the level of detail that users of the ‘policy paper’ format expect.

The best way to know how to publish this is to explore the user need more closely. How and why will users find this information? It’s bad content design practice to burden users with information that’s irrelevant to what they need right now.

Policy in guidance

Around 80% of page visits on GOV.UK are to guidance to help users complete a task or interaction with government. Most people won’t read background text that isn’t relevant to the task they’re performing.

Some users want to know the detail of policy, but they aren’t the same users as people looking for guidance.

Guidance on how to apply for a programme or scheme shouldn’t include more than 1 or 2 sentences about what the programme is.

Guidance should not include:

  • why it exists (the problem being solved)
  • how much money has been allocated to it
  • who runs it
  • aspirational statements about the intended outcome

These should be in a policy paper or other formats explained in the scenarios in this guidance.

Scenario 1: announcing a new policy or activity

There are a number of formats you can use to tell users about a new policy or activity.

These formats include:

These are sufficient to announce something new until more specific information is available.

An example announcement is Government sets out plans to reshape workplace pensions.

Scenario 2: policy top-level introductions

Use a policy paper to set the context and reasoning behind a policy.

This means you can explain the intentions and research behind a policy separately from information about how it’s being implemented.

Scenario 3: government activity top-level introductions

If this information is brief, you can add it to a relevant corporate information page. For example, use a ‘Petitions and campaigns’ page for policy information about a campaign.

You can alternatively use a policy paper to explain what the government is doing about a particular policy or issue. This might include information about:

  • how the government is implementing a policy
  • how much money is being spent

You can group a number of related publications for a known audience in a document collection.

This allows users to find all the information about a distinct government activity in 1 place.

Scenario 4: more detail about an aspect of the policy

Detail about the policy should be part of a policy paper.

This could include:

  • the outcome the government is trying to achieve
  • actions the government is taking to achieve the outcome
  • why the government is doing this activity
  • the background to this policy
  • the budget and timescale for the policy actions

For example, How the Charity Commission solves safeguarding problems in charities.

Scenario 5: telling users they may need to do something in the future

To tell users that something is changing and they will need to do it differently in the future, use a news story. This includes new schemes they can apply for or services they will be able to use.

Make sure this news story is user-focused. Make it as short and factual as possible. For example, Transit visa requirements are changing.

If users can access the service or scheme now it may be appropriate for services and information (‘mainstream’) content. Contact GDS to discuss this.

When to do user research

Do user research when you’re:

  • starting a new project
  • improving existing content

Use user research to:

  • find out what users need
  • test assumptions you have about what users need

The resources for user researchers explains the different types of user research and when they’re helpful.

Understanding the content lifecycle

Check the content retention and withdrawal (‘archiving’) policy to see if/when content should be retired.

We’re still working on this section. Sign up to get an alert when we make changes to the guidance.

Accessibility

We want GOV.UK content and services to be as accessible and usable as possible. We also have a legal obligation to make sure people can access the information we produce. This includes users with visual, hearing, cognitive or motor impairments, as well as those with learning difficulties.

When planning content, it’s important to think about:

Open formats

Documents created in open formats can be opened with either free or paid-for software. This means they:

  • can be read and used by more people
  • help people to share their work more easily
  • make it easier and cheaper to do business with government

The government is moving towards publishing documents (including text, presentations, charts and graphs) using open standards. These standards cover documents designed to be viewed and edited.

They don’t, however, apply to datasets that are intended to be machine-readable. If you currently publish data as .csv files, it’s fine to continue doing this.

How and when to use open formats

Departments and organisations are currently working out the best time to switch over to open formats. Your technology leader or IT department should be able to give detailed guidance on how your publishing will be affected by the move.

In the short term, you may want to bring your publishing closer to compliance with the standards by making greater use of the HTML publication format on GOV.UK.

Once open standards for publishing are adopted in your organisation, no documents should be published using other document formats.

Documents designed to be viewed

The document ‘viewing’ standards apply to documents that users are meant to read, rather than to edit or interact with.

Documents for ‘viewing’ must be available in 1 or both of the following formats:

  • HTML5 (the language web pages are built with), eg HTML publications
  • PDF/A that has been formatted to be accessible - you can continue to use PDF until your department has tools in place that produce PDF/A

Documents designed to be edited

A separate set of formats applies to documents designed to be edited (eg statistics, spreadsheets) or used for collaborative working.

This type of document must be published in:

  • .odt for text documents
  • .ods for spreadsheets
  • .odp for presentations

Data

The open standards rules don’t cover the publication of datasets designed to be machine readable by external software.

However, if you need to publish structured data like tables or spreadsheets, you should use:

  • .ods - an open format that can be used in free, open or proprietary licensed software
  • .csv - a machine-readable format which enables users to process the data it contains

Avoid publishing statistical tables or datasets within a PDF or other format designed mainly for text. This is because it makes it difficult for visually impaired users who rely on screenreaders. Instead, try to provide them separately using .ods or .csv.

URLs

GOV.UK URLs (web addresses) are designed to follow a consistent, predictable, user-friendly format.

Most URLs are generated automatically when a page is created in Whitehall Publisher. However, short or ‘friendly’ URLs are sometimes created for promotional purposes. If you need a short URL, you need to: