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6 principles for smoothing out the user journey

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Best practice, User insights

The information in this blogpost may now be out of date. See the current GOV.UK content and publishing guidance.

Our analytics guru Lana Gibson recently showed us how to improve our users’ experience by looking at what people were searching for on specific pages of GOV.UK then making it easier for them to find it.

Our theme leads all identified ‘quick wins’ and made a number of changes based on the data. After a month we looked at the data and there were some significant improvements.

This got me thinking about the various ways we try to smooth out the journey for our users and I thought it might be useful to share some underlying principles.

The principles

1. One content item for one user need

We keep going on about it, but it really works. It makes it easier for the user to find in the content they're after in the first place (if they can't find your content, they can't benefit from it).

It also means they don’t need to wade through stuff on the page that doesn’t apply to them right now to find the stuff that does.

The whole thing is what they need to know to do what they want to do.

2. Use data to figure out related needs and have them easily available from the page

That’s what the mini-project I just mentioned was all about.

3. Optimise the page based on the language your audience is using

Having the most important keywords in the title or first sentence helps the right people to find the right page in the first place.

It also helps them find out exactly what they want to know straight away, instead of having to wade through oceans of content.

4. Design the content flow logically

An important point here is designing it based on the order in which the user needs to know it. For example, you don’t want to tell someone how to appeal against a decision before you’ve told them how to apply in the first place.

The general flow for a lot of task-based government content is:

  • find out about it
  • apply for it
  • get a decision
  • appeal or complain (if you’re not happy)

Look at the user's journey through the entire task, not just through your content. This helps you design the content so it mirrors the user's experience and is therefore easier to comprehend.

5. Your users won’t read your content - don’t try to make them

Use standard web writing principles - like plain English, plenty of subheadings, bullet lists and plenty of white space so that users can scan your content and get what they need from it.

6. Provide the right amount of content in the right level of detail

Keep it short, simple and clear. At the same time, you need to make sure there’s enough depth for the user to actually achieve what they’re trying to achieve.

I'm sure there are at least 7 principles. What have I missed?

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  1. Comment by E. Brown posted on

    Hi Padma,

    Nice to hear of progress of quick wins. There's no question that sometimes small changes make a big difference.

    As to your question: What you might have missed is providing references or links to support the principles you've outlined.

    It's fine to pitch these statements, but you need to back them up with evidence to make a case for them.

    As a blog reader involved in website transition
    I need references
    so that I can test your principles for myself and apply them to my situation.


  2. Comment by Padma Gillen posted on

    Hi there and thanks for your comment.

    Yes, evidence - good point! You're quite right.

    I'm afraid my approach to blogging is to write fairly quickly and get it out there. Otherwise it never gets done due to the many competing tasks I have on at any one time. Speed of production generally wins over being exhaustive.

    My hope is that in sharing the broad brush strokes of our experience of designing content for GOV.UK it will be of some benefit. Though it does require a level of trust that I'm not just making it up 🙂

    But since you asked, here are a few references to be going on with. Hope they're useful:

    1. Copyblogger post on principles of SEO:

    The content part talks about keeping it tightly focused (ie one user need), and the use of keywords in the title etc relates to my point about taking account of the language of the user.

    2. Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) post about the F-shaped reading pattern and its implications for writing web content:

    3. Something else from NNG about user-centric vs maker-centric language:

    4. I linked to Lana's post which details the results of the miniproject, but here it is again:

    • Replies to Padma Gillen>

      Comment by E.A. Brown posted on

      Hi Padma,

      Thanks for following up promptly. I appreciate the time you've taken to reply.

      The Copyblogger SEO article doesn't mention 'user need', not in the context of 'one content item for one user need'. The 5 principles it lists are: title, meta-description, content, keyword frequency, links.

      Can you please confirm that this is the article you meant? Maybe there's another article with a similar title?

      To pursue your first principle, I've searched for the phrase 'one content item for each user need' in Google. The results give me this blog post, and several pages of links about configuring software. No mention of user needs or content development. Try the search for yourself.

      I tried the same phrase within the GDS design principles: no hits.

      The phrase 'user needs' comes up just 4 times in the design principles, and the term 'needs' appears almost exclusively in the first principle alone ('start with needs'). But no 'one content item for each user need'.

      Maybe this is a paraphrase for another concept that you 'keep going on about'? Or it's become a shorthand within GDS, but is not expanded in discussion, because everyone within GDS understands what you mean?

      I'm not certain that understanding reaches outside your office.

      Like Inego Montoya, 'That word you keep using, I do not think it means what you think it means...'

      What I'm getting at - your principles and broad brush strokes sounds fine, but maybe they mean something very specific to you, and don't mean much to me, because I'm not in GDS, and don't know the secret language.

      When I try to find out more about the terms you've used, I don't find any support.

      As this blog is one of the main means of communication with its users, I rely on it to be accurate and testable.

      Happy to follow up further if you have other leads.

      • Replies to E.A. Brown>

        Comment by Padma Gillen posted on

        Hey there! I think I'll write another post specifically on this idea of one content item for one user need. It sounds like this needs unpacking.

        If you have specific questions or doubts or things you'd like me to cover on this issue, please let me know.

        I'll warn you now though, I doubt I'll be referencing a bunch of texts or posts on the issue that uses the specific language of 'user need'. As you say, it's not a broadly used phrase (yet).

        • Replies to Padma Gillen>

          Comment by Lana Gibson posted on

          Hi there,

          User needs are informed by user data. Specifically the terms that people are searching for in Google and other external search engines around government services. By looking at what people are searching for we can understand their needs and give them what they want. You can find out how we research our user needs in our style guide - This information is halfway down the page, under the heading 'Starting to write content'.

          I'm not sure if this completely answers your question, but gives some context at least!

          Cheers, Lana

          • Replies to Lana Gibson>

            Comment by E.A. Brown posted on

            Hi Lana,

            Good of you to respond, cheers. At the risk of sounding pedantic, my question is really about Padma's first statement (emphasis mine) from her post:

            1. *One content item for one user need*

            *We keep going on about it*, but it really works. It makes it easier for the user to find in the content they’re after in the first place...<snip>

            I asked for support for this statement like links or references, wording it as a user need - and Padma replied with some links. Unfortunately, her references did *not* back up the statement 'one content item per user need'.

            Nor can I find any evidence in this blog or in the design principles that 'we keep going on about it (the 'one content item per user need' part).

            GDS does keep going on about user needs: that's *different* from the refinement of 'one content item per user need' .

            I've been paying close attention to GDS blog posts for a year now, and this is the first time I've heard this phrase. If it's new to me, it's new to others too.

            So AFAICT, GDS does not 'keep going on about it'. If GDS staff do, they go on about it amongst themselves, which I know as 'preaching to the choir'. Once you start doing that, it's easy to stop hearing anyone else, because your ears are full of your own soothing refrains.

            More broadly: GDS has chosen this blog as its preferred way to communicate with its users. I rely on this blog to be clear and accurate. One cost of writing online is that readers can and will question you, and require you to back up your statements.

            If GDS authors write broad-stroke posts that cannot stand up to a [citation?] enquiry, then I question their post's reliability, and am less likely to trust future posts.

            Padma mentioned in a reply that ' does require a level of trust that I'm not just making it up :-),'

            But why *should* I trust you, when your blog's statements don't meet your own practice of providing data, not just making assumptions?

  3. Comment by Padma Gillen posted on

    Hi again. As I mentioned, I'll be writing more on this in a future blog post.