Auckland Council workshop, July 2016

A quick thanks to everyone who came along on Friday, and to Joyce, Jenny, Nathan, Deanna, and Aleks for all their help getting the day together.

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Now for the workshop summary, with some extra links to read and the full slide deck split into sections.

Part 1: How people use the web

Your writing needs to:

  • Work for people in task mode
  • Get people interested enough to start looking down the page
  • Cater to skim reading and F-shaped browsing
  • Take advantage of the design of headings, subheadings, and links.

People don’t use your website the way you want them to. They don’t start at the homepage, or fit into idealised “user journeys” (horrible term, sorry). They just do what it takes to get something done. And whatever that something is, it’s one of two things:

  • Consuming information: Finding information, e.g. by reading, watching videos, or scrolling through images (slide 8)
  • Interacting with you: Posting an update, filling in a form, calculating something, making a payment, etc. Here, people exchange inputs for outputs so they can complete a job (slide 9).

That’s it. That’s everything. So you’re either informing people, or helping them through a process. Every time.

Task mode and good content

‘Task mode’ is how you operate when there’s something you have to do, and other things you’d rather do. You want to do it fast, and you want it to be easy.

Good content makes tasks easy. Good content helps people in task mode find the information, and complete the interactions, that they need. Bad content breaks that flow.

Good content is not:

  • Whatever you feel like producing (even if it’s a cute little kitten)
  • Whatever your boss wants to tell people
  • Whatever fills the template
  • Whatever you can get signed off before 5pm

Web browsing + task mode = people don’t read much

I won’t recount the whole Slate/Chartbeat thing, but…

Even on websites that people browse for fun, heaps of people bounce (i.e. leave) without reading more than a few words. The average reader takes in about 20-30% of your words. Jakob Neilson worked that out ages ago.

But they don’t just start at the top and scroll until they get bored. People find the info they’re after, and they skip the rest. They skim read.

You’re all getting Fs

The F-shape reading pattern that I couldn’t stop talking about is described wonderfully by Jakob Neilson:

People look down the left of the page. They look at headings, buttons and links (which are designed to stand out), and at images. Eyes flick right when there might be something interesting there.

What this means for headings, subheadings, and links

Headings need to quickly confirm to your reader that they’re in the right place. I didn’t have time on Friday for my sweet-as story about a heading: Put Your Butt Somewhere Awesome. You should read it now.

Subheadings must help your readers find the parts of the page they want to read. You already use paragraphs to sort your ideas into chunks. Subheadings add helpful labels to those chunks. (In the slide deck above, see 23-25 for examples.)

  • Put the most important words first, i.e. on the left of screen (to suit F-shaped browsing)
  • Use words that differentiate each section (unlike the Waikato University example)
  • Test your subheadings: Have someone read through your page, but only the subheadings. Can they tell what it’s all about? Can they work out where to look for specific information?

Links tell people where they’re going, and describe the linked content well. Examples done badly and well are in slides 27-28 above.

Some extra reading from Max:

Activity 1: Structure a word blob about the history of the City of Perth

Using subheadings, lists, and your knowledge of the ‘F-shape’, make this text easier to scan read. (You can also edit the text if you want, but focus on those structural elements.)


Part 2: Make reading easier

There are a number of things to keep in mind as you’re writing. By bringing all these strands together, you can serve your readers really well, and enjoy a few helping constraints as you work:

  • Word count
  • The inverted pyramid
  • Tone of voice
  • Plain language

Word count

Good web writers use fewer words. Crucially, they do it without losing any information from their work.

At the structural stage, before you start drafting, clarify exactly what you need to convey.

When writing and editing, sweat every sentence and every word. What is it adding?

The inverted pyramid

Important stuff first (“What’s the tweet of this page?”). Slightly less important stuff next.

Tone of voice

As we saw from three car rental companies, differing tones can make similar organisations appear very differently. When multiple writers share a tone, a whole website hangs together much better. It avoids confusion and makes you all look good.

Your tone (‘Our voice’, p7) is:

  • Optimistic
  • Respectful
  • Straight-up
  • Inclusive

Think about what going too far down any of those lines sounds like (starry-eyed, deferential, abrupt or obsequious). As you work, ask yourself whether you’re hitting the right four notes.

Plain language – sound like a human

Write plainly. Adult literacy in New Zealand is average, not good. Your readers are possibly dual-screening, thinking about something else, or distracted. Don’t tax their cognition any more than you have to.

  • Kill jargon: It’s the time when you’re not allowed to park in a bus lane, rather than a Lane Active Period
  • One idea per sentence: Short sentences are easier to read.
  • Write in the first person and with the active voice, to make sure that actions have doers.

There’s more about that awesome story I told about judges and lawyers in this post: Plain language and the myth of “dumbing it down”

Resources and inspiration:

Online tools for writers

Have a look around and see what works for you. Start with:

Activity 2: (Re)writing complex text as a pair

A little bit about pair writing:

Pair writing: How to collaborate closely on content with subject matter experts, is a workshop with Richard Ingram (from London) at CS Forum in Melbourne, October 7. This is a high-quality opportunity.


The text you worked on came from the City of Port Phillip, ‘Council Plan and Budget’ page, under the heading “Council adopts 2016/17 Budget”.

Parts 3 & 4: Creating and testing content that’s fit for purpose

People are weird. And you’re writing for people, which means you have weirdness to deal with.

When your content is fit for purpose, it helps people get their task done. And when that happens, the business benefits as well.

That means that there are three sides to bring together:

  • User needs
  • User’s context
  • Business goals

User needs

Get evidence for what your users really need, and the words they use. Listen in on customer conversations. Talk with frontline staff. Use your analytics, or even a Google AdWords account.

Summarise your typical users as personas that you can keep in mind while you work.

Mobile devices and user context

You don’t know what device people will use to access your content.

For a lot of people, mobile is the only option at home. Across the whole population, mobile usage is growing. It’s not replacing other online time, but adding to it. The old idea of the “mobile use case”, which justified cut-down functionality for “people on the go”, simply isn’t true.

Structuring content for mobile means you’re serving your users in their context. It also forces you to think hard about what belongs on a page, and in what order.

Activity 3: Restructure a page for mobile

Taking a page apart and putting it back together in a single column. Specifically, this page: The Auckland Plan


Defining a page’s purpose: Adding in business goals

Putting a page’s elements in the “right order” is hard when you don’t know who the page is for and what goals it ought to achieve. That’s why we looked at simple page briefs that combine user needs and business goals.

Activity 4: Working with page briefs


In this group exercise, we worked on pages about starting a food business, and about paying your rates. The steps were:

  1. Pick one of those topics and write a brief that includes:
    • Two user goals
    • Two business goals
    • The page purpose
    • The user’s next steps
  2. Swap your brief with another group (who have worked on a different topic to you)
  3. Put together a page structure in response to the brief you received
  4. In pairs, write two of the sections that you’ve created for your new page

Compared to the earlier Auckland Plan exercise, this page structure should have been much easier, because your page had defined goals.

A more thorough page brief template: The core model.

Test your content

The best way to discover whether your content fits your users’ context is to ask. Formal user testing sessions are great, but there are quicker and easier ways as well. You can even get workmates to read your work and tell you what they understand from it. That’s much better than no testing, and guaranteed to teach you something, almost every time.

And that’s it!

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Join the world of content people

Emma and Max are two-thirds of the team behind the Auckland Content Strategy Meetup. Join us and you’ll get to know other awesome people who love content and want to make the internet a better place, and maybe you’ll even learn something.

(Last plug, I promise.) CS Forum is a travelling, world-class content strategy conference. Normally it’s half a world away from here – previous host cities are Paris, London, Cape Town, Helsinki and Frankfurt. This October it’s in Melbourne. Our backyard. There’s never been a better chance for New Zealanders to get to anything like this. So, we’ll see you all there, yeah? We’ll even help you save on registration, because you’re great.

Thanks everyone!