A few years ago, a major government enterprise spent a small fortune transforming its website. Very late in the piece, a lone voice asked a simple question: “What about the actual writing on the new site? Do our people have the skills to make the most of this new system?” At two minutes to midnight, they rushed to organise some training on writing for the web.
I’ve seen this scenario play out in far too many agencies. Digital transformation projects focus on the IT architecture, and forget that the content generating hardware (ie: the staff) learned how to write in a paper environment on an A4 page. And subject matter experts can overrule the communication specialists who do understand how to write for the web.
A recent study of 28 Australian government websites illustrates the problem. It found 80% failed to meet standards for readability, 90% failed on word density, and none met standards for passive language or sentence length. These elements are crucial to online communication, where digital transactions are increasingly replacing the conversations the public used to have over a counter or over the phone.
Not surprisingly, most government employees write in a more formal tone than they would use in person. For example, they might say “sorry you had a problem with your application”, but their written version becomes “it is regretted that difficulties have been experienced in this instance”. This more complex language not only alienates readers, but takes more time and effort and produces far more errors.“The underlying process must fundamentally change.”
And written expression is just one part of the plain English reform required for clear online communication. The underlying process must fundamentally change.
Above all, the digital service revolution must be user driven. This means analysing user needs and the practical tasks they will complete on your site. It means developing personas of representative readers and testing how well your site delivers. It means collecting real-time data and having a more open, immediate and practical exchange with the public.
While the corporate sector is adapting to this environment, a risk-averse writing culture is holding government agencies back. And their thinking still starts with the physical page.
A typical approach is to chunk up an existing paper document into HTML pages or just whack it on the web as a PDF. Staff simply haven’t had enough training in how to repurpose their text online.
And while agencies have been struggling with this reality, it has all changed again. Some time in 2014, we passed the crossover point where more data was consumed on mobile devices than on desktop computers. So the future is not just digital, but digital and mobile.
The mobile future starts with responsive design, where a site can automatically switch from desktop to mobile to a dedicated app. Users will want to move seamlessly between sites across a range of devices at different times of the day.
Each site will need its own information hierarchy. A desktop site will need clear architecture so users can navigate from home pages to information and task pages. The mobile site will need to be further condensed, with far fewer menus and information chunked into 10 cm bites.
Increasingly, every pixel of screen space must earn its keep, which means greater discipline in paring back the content with concise expression to maximise clarity without compromising tone.“… it takes only 50 milliseconds to form an impression of content and reading is not required.”
Then there is the design. As plain language expert Karen Schriver put it: “Research suggests that it takes only 50 milliseconds to form an impression of content and reading is not required.” To engage readers, we need to break down the wall of words on web pages through shorter sentences and paragraphs and more sophisticated lists and headings.
In short, the mobile and digital future requires a much more advanced skillset and a complete shift in how we plan, structure, design and write online communications.
The recently released Digital Service Standard from the Digital Transformation Office recognises this shift, and offers an invaluable foundation for digital service development. The standard’s 13 criteria stress a multi-disciplinary and user-centred approach. This includes accessible and responsive design with end-to-end testing and performance measurement.
But there’s still a missing piece of the puzzle: the writing and design itself. The government employees who will need to write digital content simply do not yet have the skills or experience that the task demands. They are struggling to write in plain English on paper, let alone for a website or a mobile device.
Agencies will need to invest much more in digital writing skills and embed plain English in their management systems and culture. The danger is that, like a government enterprise organising web writing training at two minutes to midnight, we will leave it too late.
Even with the best architecture, agile teams and user-centred process, we may still fail to deliver on the digital service potential.