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Pair writing with Student Loans Company

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I’m a content designer on GOV.UK and Sarah is a content editor at the Student Loans Company (SLC).

Last quarter we worked together on improving content around applying for a means-tested student loan. As part of the process, students enter their parent’s or partner’s income so SLC can work out how much money the student can get. The parent or partner then needs to confirm their income.

We found that lots of parents or partners are confused about the process or make mistakes. They’re not sure when or how they need to submit information, so they often look for a paper form when they can use an online service after the student has applied. It’s not clear to them what financial information they need to have at hand. This means students might not get what they’re entitled to or have to wait longer to get all of their money.

Getting the whole picture

As part of this work, colleagues from policy, marketing, service design and content at SLC travelled to GDS for a workshop. We spent the day looking at all the research we’d gathered.

Being so far apart, this was a brilliant opportunity for colleagues in both Glasgow and London to work collaboratively and have conversations about the loan application process, problems and our ideas.

We prioritised the greatest needs and problems and then came up with solutions. Information for parents and partners was either missing or tucked away in content that wasn’t written for them, and we decided to spend the rest of the week solving this problem.

Chris Hunter (Product Marketing Manager at SLC) and Sarah stayed in London and we made a rough outline of how the new content might look. Sarah and I then spent the next couple of days writing.

Working together to improve the content

Pair writing is traditionally a partnership between a content person and a policy expert, but we’d learnt a lot in the workshop about the application process and the policy behind it. We were confident we could write something that was accurate. We had a clear problem to solve, so there wasn’t as much debate on what we needed to include.

There were some snags. We both thought we could have benefited from talking more about GOV.UK style and content patterns before we started. Pair writing relies on you being able to verbalise ideas as they come, where content designers are used to scribbling and editing as they write. This can take up a lot of energy, so it was helpful to show a draft of the new content during content crits to get a fresh perspective. There were some cases when we would have benefited from a policy expert in the room, which led to some last-minute changes before we published.

Sarah also had some more thoughts about the process:

“As it was my first time pair writing, I found it quite challenging. You suddenly become very self-conscious and your own way of writing seems under the spotlight.

“It’s sometimes difficult for us to understand why decisions have been made about content so it was really useful for SLC to see the GDS process.

“I’ve picked up different ways of working which I hope can improve our output. We plan on introducing pair writing and want to find time to look at the whole journey when starting a new project.”

Ultimately, it’s the users who’ll determine if the content is a success. SLC is measuring how many calls they get about topics covered by the new content. We’ll be looking at Google Analytics to measure how many people try to find contact information after viewing the page and how many are downloading the paper forms. We’ll soon get an idea whether we’ve improved the experience for parents and partners.

Stefan is a Content Designer on GOV.UK.

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