How to make sure your content doesn’t fail your customers

Many moons ago I produced content for local authority websites.  It was a time when e-services (also known as transactional government) was big news.

Councils up and down the country were revamping their websites in line with two main service standards:

  • the LGSL (Local Government Service List) – to group and structure content about their local services and
  • the LGIL (Local Government Interactions List) – to structure transactions such as reporting, applying for or paying for something

Before councils started using the LGSL and LGIL, I found that the approach to content on online services did little to help users.

Unfortunately, this still holds true today.  Unhelpful content is rife.

Examples of unhelpful content include content that’s:

  • about the organisation
  • jargon-ridden
  • lifted wholesale from print documents
  • updated rarely or reactively

About the organisation
This includes all sorts of details that are irrelevant to users including, lists of team structures and locations, images of the office space – with organisational structure charts thrown in for good measure!

Content laced with jargon or technical language that only the only those who work for the organisation use.

The jargon is sometimes so hyper-specific that it is used by individual teams only.

Under this heading I also include acronyms and abbreviations.  These are used liberally, without any consistent approach to spelling out exactly what they meant.

Lifted whole-sale from print documents
This involves copying reams of text and reproducing it as-is online, complete with long sentences, long paragraphs and wall-to-wall text.

The content may even be presented in a structure that mimics the flow of a book, i.e. Chapter 1, Chapter 2 etc.

Updated rarely or reactively
Content that is updated once in a blue moon or only when someone (generally a user) points out an error or a discrepancy, or complains.

During my local authority days, I lost count of the number of times I found posters in the town centre promoting an online service.

But the online content didn’t match the offline promise.


Reasons why this approach to content doesn’t work for customers

Looking at the four areas I’ve mentioned, particularly in the context of online government services, there are sound reasons why this overall approach simply doesn’t work.

Contact us information

General information about team structures is nothing more than ‘general information’ for the sake of it.

All content should have a purpose.

If the purpose is to make sure that users can reach relevant team members to ask a question, turn that piece of content into a contact page, or provide contextual contact information – on the same page that talks about the service.

Members of the pubic or other users don’t care who heads up which teams, but they do care about getting a timely answer to their queries.

And that means finding the right contact information.  Without having to dig for it.

Plain English

Internal jargon has been proven not to work for users because they simply don’t understand it.

Stripping content down to its bare essentials and providing clear explanations that everyone, including specialist users, will understand works for all and alienates none.

If jargon is unavoidable or necessary, include an explanation in plain English wherever that jargon occurs.

And the same rule applies to acronyms.

Because government loves using acronyms and abbreviations, both are widespread.

If you really have to use them, be clear about what each one means, to avoid confusion.

In one team I worked with, different members of the team talked at cross-purposes because they used an acronym without saying what it meant.  That same acronym had two different meanings.

Print vs online content

The main reason why print content replicated as-is online doesn’t work is because we read more slowly online and we don’t read everything.

We skim and scan text (that’s why sub-headings are useful) to find what we’re looking for.

And we don’t interact with a website in the same linear way we do with a book.

We can jump in to web content (and leave!) at any point so all content must be understood in its own right.

If any of it must be read alongside other content, it should be structured accordingly.

Content that isn’t new(s)

Irregular or sporadic content updates are bad news for users.

If your latest news item is dated 10th March 2004, you either need more recent news to fill the glaring gap, or you need to change the heading.

All content must deliver on its promise.

By showing users you’re keeping your content updated, you’re telling them you’re making an effort to make sure it’s correct and that they can trust what you’re saying.

Out-of-date content can’t do any of this.  It’s the loudest way to tell users that you’re not credible and you’re not on top of your content game.