A Content and User Experience Strategy for local government

Updating my original content strategy first written in 2013. Still a work in progress, still subject to change and additions

Principles in creating content

We shall now unpack further some of the concepts referred to earlier in more detail. 

Respect the user’s basic knowledge and capability 

We must not patronise our users. We should assume our users are people who have lived as adults in the world for a number of years and thus understand how the world functions; if they are reporting – for example – that their bins haven’t been collected, we should assume that in the overwhelming majority of cases they will know what day is their bin day and what rubbish needs to go in what bin. 

Clients will often make firm demands for why a whole screenful of text should precede a link to a form, saying ‘people need to know this before they start, we get lots of mistakes if you don’t do this’. If there are certain pieces of information a user will need to gather before they start to complete the form we absolutely should inform them before they start; any further contextual information should be provided at the point in the form they need it. If the service area says not providing this information up front will result in a disproportionate number of incorrect submissions, they need to evidence this assertion. 

Plain English 

We should not patronise our audience, but all our content should nevertheless be written clearly and concisely, using the plainest English appropriate for the circumstances. Technical content for a specific audience may include technical language, but care should be taken to ensure the language is no more technical than it needs to be; in a diverse multicultural city or borough, English will not always be the first language of our users. Whilst the policies, regulations, and legislation for the licensing of certain business activity may be complicated, the process of applying for and renewing that license should not be. 

There may be legal reasons why we must provide legal text about a service we offer. Unless the law says that legal text must be the only text we provide, we should always make the primary content a human-readable version of that text, with the legal code provided as secondary content. Our human-readable text should not be written as legalese, and we should always use the language of the resident on the street rather than council language, lest we look pompous, or worse, officious. For example, the sentence which might be written into our policy: 

‘Footway crossing installations will only be allowed where the frontage depth is a minimum of 4.75m (to any part of the property, including retaining walls, and so on)’ 

will be better expressed as: 

‘We will only allow a dropped kerb where you have at least 4.75m for a driveway’ 

In fact, why does the policy itself need to be written using pompous language in the first place? 

If the client says that it’s the law that the user content must be written in a certain manner, ask them to provide the reference for that law. If it's the law that a legalistic text must be provided but it doesn't stop you also providing a plain English translation, provide both texts, with the plain English text prominent.

Reading age 

A frequent assertion is made that ‘the average reading age in the UK is 9’, or a similar age; there are two corollaries which usually follow this assertion - [1] that articles in The Sun and similar populist mass-market newspapers are written to a reading age of 8, and [2] that general content should be written to a reading age of 8, as measured by automated tools which create an index number based on metrics such as the average number of syllables and words per sentence in the content. 

There is limited evidence for the assertion that the average reading age is something which can be measured and stated at all, let alone an age of 9. There is a UK government survey from 2011 (https://literacytrust.org.uk/parents-and-families/adult-literacy/what-do-adult-literacy-levels-mean/ ) which found that 15% of adults have literacy levels lower than that expected of a nine to 11 year old. Clearly this has implications for how we create content, but attempting to chase an arbitrary score on such as the Flesch–Kincaid index is not the answer.  

One topic per section, one concept per paragraph, one idea per sentence 

The usual implication for the ‘average reading age is 9’ assertion is that mass-market populist newspapers targeted at people who left education at 16 is that those newspapers write like primary school storybooks in short staccato sentences no longer than about 10 words. The previous sentence of 43 words would likely upset those advocates! In fact many articles in The Sun are made of sentences of around 20 words, sentences of 30-40 words are common, and sentences of around 50 words have been seen in some opinion pieces. 

How The Sun maintains readability to a mass market audience is not by writing short staccato sentences (which actually become tiring to read after a while), rather it writes to a pattern where one or two long sentences will cover a whole paragraph. Subclauses and parenthetical asides are moved into the next sentence rather than included in the current sentence. 

How The Sun maintains readability to a mass market audience is not by writing short staccato sentences, instead it writes to a pattern where one or two long sentences will cover a whole paragraph. Short, staccato sentences actually become tiring to read after a while! See what I did there?


Break your text content up into lots of subheadings. Subheadings not only make it easier for everybody to keep a grip on the content, they also really help users of assistive technology such as screenreaders in quickly navigating around a document.