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CONTENT: Recognising the importance of good content and the ability to write clearly

By the end of this module, you should understand:

  1. What content is and how it links to user needs
  2. Different content formats
  3. The importance of planning content creation
  4. The importance of using plain English when writing for users


What is digital content?

All digital products need content. Content provides users with information to meet the user needs highlighted during the discovery phase of the agile process. You’ll learn more about these in the user needs module and the agile module.

Although it’s fair to say that much of the content the department produces is text, we do in fact use a variety of content formats to meet user needs, including:

We always base decisions about content types on what users have told us will work best for them.


When to plan content

It’s important to consider as early as possible in a project’s discovery phase:

  • what kind of content you need to produce to meet user need
  • who will produce it
  • how they will produce it
  • when they will produce it
  • what approval and sign-off processes are needed

One of the most common mistakes in digital projects is to leave it too late to produce high-quality content. Content often takes longer than expected to produce and publish, so you should include a content plan in your broader project plan.


Writing for the web

There has already been extensive research into how people read online, and this informs how we write for the web. Here are some of the most important findings:

  • Break up your text into chunks, and use clear headers and subheads. Users’ eyes scan the page in an ‘F’ shape, so we know they’re skim-reading, checking out headers and subheads before scrolling down a page to look for information that’s most relevant to them.
  • Keep the word count to a minimum. Users only read between 20% and 28% of a web page, so it’s best to make it as easy as possible for them to find the information they need. Once a web page has more than 200 words on it, the amount a user is likely to read and comprehend decreases rapidly as word count increases.
  • Don’t overuse capital letters. Capitals make text 13% to 18% harder to read, and this slows users down. The GOV.UK style guide gives advice on when to use capitals and when to avoid them.
  • Use words that your users will search for. If you publish a document online and users are looking for it using keywords that you haven’t included, they won’t be able to find it. For example, a document giving guidance on legislation about e-cigarettes should include the word ‘vaping’, as we know more people search for that term than ‘e-cigarettes’. The digital team can advise on how to search for keywords people are likely to be using.
  • Use plain English, even if you’re writing for a specialist audience.
    Plain English isn’t about dumbing down or only using simple words. It’s about making content as easy to read as possible by:

    – keeping sentence structure simple (try for no more than 25 words in a sentence)
    – avoiding jargon, where possible
    – explaining technical or difficult words when you have to use them

Research shows that even the most educated, expert audiences prefer plain English. This is because it uses our core vocabulary (15,000 words), which we have acquired by the age of 9. Because our brain easily recognises these words, we don’t have to ‘read’ them. So they speed up how quickly we can understand text and save time – which is appreciated especially by expert audiences who often have the most to read.





Here in the DH our digital content team works to ensure that the language on GOV.UK is clear, and written in plain English rather than in ‘Civil Servant Mandarin‘.

An example of clearly written content is the care and support campaign page on GOV.UK.

Similarly, this complex policy issue on mental health care is simplified for the wider public through the use of plain English.

Below are some before/after examples of how language can be made clearer without sacrificing any of the content:

  1. Recently, it was reported that dietary patterns consistent with recommended dietary guidance are associated with a lower risk of mortality among individuals age 45 years and older in the UK.
    People in the UK aged 45 and over who eat a balanced diet are less likely to die early than those who don’t.
  1. To establish eligibility for a voucher, an applicant must show that the applicant has a low income and that the present housing of the applicant is substandard and inadequate.
    If you can show that you have a low income and your house is not suitable then you will be eligible for a voucher.
  1. Easy access to information and resources concerning long-term care issues for the elderly and the disabled has been made available on a new website developed by the department.
    The department has a new website that provides information and help for older people and people with a disability.
  1. Consumer messages have been developed to educate the public about the core deliverables in the Dietary Guidelines and will be used in materials targeted for consumers.
    The NHS has produced some leaflets for the public on healthy eating.
  1. There is an increasing body of published observational epidemiological studies, including from the UK, on the effectiveness of influenza vaccines in protecting against GP attended respiratory consultations laboratory confirmed as influenza.
    A number of studies have confirmed that the flu vaccine is effective.

Further information


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