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

What is the Content and UX Strategy?

Because in local government content strategy and user experience are often inextricably interlinked - and because many councils don't have the resources to have multiple specialists - I am expanding my original content strategy to encompass user experience guidelines as well.

Ultimately, the purpose of our Content and UX Strategy is to give us a framework outlining a shared common understanding following agreed guidelines to steer us into creating consistent online experiences for users to enable them to easily carry out tasks they have come to our digital services to perform – whether that’s finding information or doing a form-based task – and have them feel more positively about the organisation when they’ve completed their task than when they started it. And by having clear published guidelines about how we create content and functionality, and display it on our sites, where there is dispute with service areas who might want to deviate from our preferred practices we have something to refer them to as the reason why we cannot fulfil their request in the way they would like us to, 

What follows will unwrap some of the detail of how we might achieve this, but ultimately the questions we need to ask ourselves when creating any piece of content are: 

  • Who is this content for? 
  • What does the user want from this piece of content? 
  • Is the user need for this content a positive or neutral need (such as eg finding out school term dates, booking for an event, finding out information about our leisure facilities, etc), or a negative need (such as paying a fine or a bill, or reporting flytipping or a missed bin collection)? 
  • If positive or neutral, how can we ensure the need is a positive experience, by making it a ‘delightful’ one? 
  • If negative, how can we turn the negative feeling the user has for the organisation at the point of use into a neutral or positive view at the end of the interaction? 
  • Has this piece of content met their user need? 
  • If yes, is there an opportunity for us to ask ‘is there anything else I can help you with now?’ 
  • If no, how can we effectively signpost them in the right direction? 

Answering those questions 

We shall take those questions in turn and examine how we shall address them. 

Who is this content for? 

Content will be being created either for a general audience or for a specific audience; it stands to reason that content for specific audiences may need to be written and structured differently from content for the general audience. Anybody might be wanting to raise a concern or make a complaint about a taxi driver, but for the most part only taxi drivers and potential taxi drivers are likely to be interested in content about taxi licensing.  

What does the user want from this content? 

User needs are traditionally expressed in the format ‘As a [demographic], I need to [do something / learn something], in order to [do something]’: 

  • As a resident, I need to get rid of an old sofa, in order to make way for the new one I’ve ordered 
  • As a parent, I need to check the next school term / holiday dates, so I can buy new uniform / plan activities 
  • As a driver, I need to pay my Clean Air Zone charge, so I don’t receive a penalty charge 

Given the reason for creating the content is to satisfy the corresponding user need, we need to ensure the primary need is satisfied immediately; if there are necessary caveats to the key information, they can be straight after the key facts before the facts for any secondary needs or the full details. 

Is the user need a positive or neutral one, or a negative need? 

Our digital services are not merely functional platforms to enable people to request or report something, they are a showcase for the organisation. They need to present the organisation in the best possible light. 

A delightful real-world service should be matched by a delightful online service. If the user need being fulfilled is a positive or neutral one, it will not serve us well if the user’s experience of the related digital service is a dull one.  

It would of course be insensitive to the user to attempt to jolly up a negative user need; if somebody is feeling grumpy when reporting the fact of their bins not having been emptied, then a picture on the page of a group of laughing binmen is not going to make them feel less grumpy about the interaction, it’s going to add fuel to their fire. Nobody is ever going to feel delighted after they’ve paid their Clean Air Zone charge. However, whilst it would be counterproductive to attempt to make the user experience of a negative digital service ‘delightful’, we can still try to mitigate the negative feelings the user will be having towards us at that point by creating a good, efficient, professional-feeling experience which accepts our responsibility for a failure of service delivery on our part and similarly does not appear to chide or rebuke the user even if the reason they are interacting with us at this time is because of something wrong they themself have done. 

Have we met the user’s need? 

It would be nice to think that if a user has typed ‘school term dates’ into DuckDuckGo, and the top link in the search engine results page has taken them straight to the school term dates page, that they’ve found out exactly what they’ve been looking for – the school term dates. Are they looking for upcoming school term dates, or were they looking for the dates in the past? Whilst in a city of a million people there will no doubt be some people who will have a user need in April to check the previous September to December’s term dates, we should not need to commission an extensive piece of user research to know that most people looking for school term dates are looking for the future dates, so they should be the first things they see. Any piece of content which contains a date in the future must be flagged internally for review on that date to be rewritten according to ongoing relevance. 

Why were they looking for the school term dates in the first place? Is there anything else we can help them with? Can we at this point in related content provide links to inspiring and exciting holiday activities for the children? Are we now approaching the end of the school holidays, when it might be helpful to also direct the user to things like school uniform grants? 

Perhaps the user typed something else which led them to the school term dates page? Were they actually looking for information about school admissions, or indeed trying to find where their nearest primary schools are for their three-year-old child? 

By being clear about the user need for the content, and understanding where that content fits into the wider context of the service rather than treating it in isolation, we can help our users further – whether that’s anticipating where they might have gone wrong in reaching this page and helping them find the right place, or anticipating what they might be wanting the information for and servicing the real underlying user need, rather than just the immediate one.