Thursday, 23 January 2014

The first rule of user needs: don't talk about user needs

How do you sell 'user needs' to government policy teams and subject matter experts?

This year the new world of user needs (concise answers to people's questions) clashes with the old world of 100-page pdfs crafted over many months by subject matter experts.

Example of a user need:
"As a farmer, I need to apply for cattle passports so I can keep cows and comply with the law." 
Writing for user needs, you keep the content focused on essential facts for answering people's questions. You don't add extra bits that get in the way of finding answers.

You want people to find the information they need quickly and easily. After all, it's not like they're settled back in an armchair reading the Sunday papers - they need to find something out NOW. On their smart phones, tablets or desktops.

User needs: why now?

This clash is happening now because 300 or so government agencies are 'transitioning' to GOV.UK. Some of the content that agencies are moving onto GOV.UK is 'guidance' documents - advice on how to comply with the law for people like farmers, caterers, accountants and teachers.
I say 'moving content' onto GOV.UK but there's more to it than that - guidance documents are being restructured and rewritten to fit user needs. We're starting with a blank sheet and asking: 'What do people need to know or do?'

Step away from the detail

Policy teams and subject matter experts know their stuff. They live and breathe strategy documents and white papers.

But sometimes when you're really close to a subject, it's difficult to put yourself in the position of a user who knows little about it.

All too often, policy teams and subject matter experts presume their audience:

  • knows technical terms
  • wants all the detail in one go
  • is happy to trawl through a 100-page guidance document to find out how to carry out a particular activity 
So do policy teams and subject matter experts know their audiences - and their needs - well enough?

Are industry bodies the best people to consult?

Policy teams and subject matter experts are good at consulting people. They have good contacts at industry bodies. They consult them at every step of the way, when writing guidance documents.

But I'm not sure that industry bodies are always the right people to consult. Yes, industry bodies represent individual users, but they're used to dealing with big documents written in legalese. Industry bodies are not likely to say to government:
'This huge document is useless. I can't find what I need to know." 

What you really need is to cultivate relationships with individual users. There's a GOV.UK blog post explaining how to get insights from users in a week.

Or government agencies could use an external company to do research and proper user testing to see if their guidance documents hit the spot or not.

Culture change

So editing content is not only about editing content. Before you can rewrite content, you need to help policy teams and subject matter experts see why it needs redoing. You need to nudge them into seeing  information from the user's viewpoint.

With guidance documents, we should no longer write 'Everything the government thinks people should know about this topic'. Instead, we need to write tactically: 'Essential information that people need to know to complete a task.'

Don't talk about user needs

And maybe as content editors we need to stop going on about user needs to our colleagues in policy teams and our subject matter experts. After all, 'user needs' is jargon.

There are other ways to say 'user needs' like:

  • Who is your audience? 
  • What are they trying to do online? 
  • What do they need to know?
  • When do they need to know it? (Are there different tasks they carry out at different times?)
  • What order do they need the information in?

Ditch the intro, get to the point

So can we agree to ditch lengthy guidance documents? I'm talking about the ones that have:

  • a front cover and a back cover (not necessary on GOV.UK, it's got your agency's name on the web page)
  • a table of contents (you only need a table of contents because the document is a 100-page PDF)
  • a lengthy introduction explaining who the document is for (instead, say this concisely in the Search summary)
  • an explanation of the history of regulations (users need to know what to do now, they don't want history)
  • an explanation of the role of a government agency (users want to know what to do and how to do it, they don't want background info)
  • huge annexes that are as big as the main body of the document (all essential info goes in the main body - no need for annexes)
  • glossaries (instead of listing definitions in a separate glossary that people may or may not see, let's explain technical terms wherever we use them)

GOV.UK blogs

The team at GOV.UK has written about user needs, how to structure content and smoothing out the user journey and GOV.UK's design principles tell you why you need to start with user needs.


That's my definition of guidance. I'm not sure what the real definition is. And if we rewrote the UK's regulations in plain English, then maybe there'd be no need for guidance?

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