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Defra and the content design community

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cONcON2A few of us Defra content designers recently went to the government content design community's first conference, at Impact Hub Westminster.

There were 150 of us. We swapped ideas and shared our gripes. We drank tea and ate biscuits (really nice biscuits).

One thing became immediately obvious as soon as we all met. As people working on GOV.UK, across various departments, we all face the same challenges.

Culture change is hard work

The Department of Health’s head of digital, Stephen Hale, kicked things off saying:

It takes resolve to stop doing things.

A sigh of recognition was heard across the room. As content designers, we’re often fighting against ‘the way it’s always been’.

Stephen said that his department was able to simplify content by making decisions based on hard analytics data - throwing away content that users didn’t read.

Shortly after, I went to a google analytics training session. I learnt that some content teams send automated google reports to policy makers, to show how their simpler content is creating more efficient user journeys - taking people only to the pages they want.

Making things simple isn’t easy

At Defra we used to be quite partial to publishing lots of information. But continuing to push out loads of advice ultimately helps nobody, because:

  • it’s hard to read
  • it’s expensive to keep online
  • most people don’t need it and it wastes people’s time

We’re trying to reduce the amount of words of Defra guidance by 80% - but this isn’t an easy thing to do. Sometimes we need to keep some content for very small, niche audiences that need very specific guidance.

At the content design conference, I found that other departments face similar challenges.


The ‘onion’ of content design

Andy Keen, GDS content lead for the HMRC transition, talked about this mainstream vs. specialist content challenge and how it was overcome when moving content onto GOV.UK.

When you have really detailed stuff online, make sure that nobody reads it unless they have to.

Tax is complex. Everyone needs to know some general bits of it - some groups of people need to know very specialist bits.

GDS’s secret weapon is the onion of taxation!

Andy said they needed to:

  • shield the majority of users from the content they don’t need
  • make sure the detail was available for those who need it

To do this, GDS created different ‘onion layers’ of content - allowing users to get straight to the level of complexity that they need.

Andy’s tips were:

  • make a clear path for users - try to put yourself in the position of a specialist user and see if internal links take you where you need to go
  • be informative to make sure users only click on the links they need, eg “Don’t read this unless you…” or “There are specific cases where…”
  • when linking off to specialist content, put the link near the top of the page you're linking from - specialist users can find their stuff quickly and the majority can just ignore it

Content designers of the world, unite!

The rest of the day buzzed with talks, noisy discussions, messy Post-it note exercises and lots of shared ideas.

It was great that we could get together and help each other out. The best thing is that we can all do the same thing everyday on Basecamp.

If you work in government digital content and you’re not already signed up to Basecamp, any member of the community can invite you. Alternatively, you can ask to be invited by emailing Persis Howe, at

And if you have some killer ideas for improving things, or if you just need a shoulder to cry on, the community is always here - with digital tea and biscuits for everyone.

You can read more about the first government content design conference on the inside GOV.UK blog.

You can follow Pete on Twitter @_kowalczyk


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