Writing for our users

As a Content Design team for the Office for National Statistics, we are frequently asked to give advice on how to write good content. Our most common response is to ask authors to think about who their users are. This is because everything we publish should meet our users’ needs.

It is our job to make sure that all ONS users can achieve what they set out to do when visiting our website. To do this, we support teams to publish content that their users can easily access and engage with. Ultimately, we all want users to get the most out of our content.

User assumptions and user needs

It can be easy to make assumptions about our users and what the average user may know. We are often writing as experts in our subject areas, so it can be difficult to distance ourselves from the content and experience it as a first-time user would.

For example, we may assume our users know an acronym that is widely used across the ONS. However, if the acronym is not commonly used elsewhere and it is not written out in full, this could cause confusion or misinterpretation for the user.

Structuring content to help users find what they need

A common assumption is that users want to know everything there is to know about a certain topic – the more information the better, right?

For example, when I set out to write this blog, my first instinct was to include the many interesting details, facts and figures I have learnt about the importance of writing for our users. But user research tells us that those who read blogs, such as yourself, are looking for informal and quick reads, rather than pages and pages of analysis. As a result, this blog is relevant and to the point.

The same applies to our statistical content. Research tells us that around 80% of users only read the first section of a page on the ONS website. More people than ever before are accessing our website by mobile devices, and we often do not have a user’s attention for very long. So, if we bury our main statistics towards the end of a page, not many users will see them. Others may become frustrated and leave the website.

We can use research, testing and analytics to understand what users want from our content. Structuring our content with users in mind helps us to prioritise our information and putting our most important points first ensures users find what they need quickly and easily. This is known as the “inverted pyramid” style of writing and is a simple but effective way to organise our content.

User stories

This is also where user stories can help. By writing a user story for this blog, I put myself in the position of the user to help me understand what they want to achieve when reading it.

Here is my user story for this blog:

As someone who writes content

I want to gain an insight and tips, quickly and informally, into how the ONS write for users across their organisation

So that I can improve how I communicate with my audience

New guidance on Style.ONS

Our new Writing for your users guidance on Style.ONS includes the user story template. It is a helpful and practical checklist (of sorts) that we can refer to time and time again to make sure our content meets our users’ needs.

The guidance also offers ways of identifying who our users are, discusses what tools we use to understand our users, and why writing for our users is so important.