How to change lives with web design

Sarah Richards is a content strategist, product manager and trainer who is currently leading Citizens Advice through a complete digital overhaul. We quizzed her about recent projects, dealing with different devices, the future of style guides and more.

Does your work at Citizens Advice differ from the work you did at GOV.UK?

Both sites have the same audience – potentially anyone in the UK – but that's pretty much where the similarity ends. We've done a lot of research already on the Citizens Advice Alpha – the prototype for the new Citizens Advice service – and we know our audience searches differently, wants information displayed in a different way and responds to a completely different tone.

How do you go about approaching a new project, in terms of content?

The most valuable thing I've learned is to assume nothing, question everything and research until you have nowhere else to go. Everyone at Alpha visits a bureau in their first week. Then we work out what our audience needs from us – not what they might want, or what the organisation has to say.

Some organisations can get caught up in improving what they have. That's a path to an unwieldy site. Being ruthless with content is the way to happy users. Then I would get that content researched and up. The only way to learn is to show people. I'd recommend having regular 'crits', where the team comment on each other's work in a safe, open environment.

What's the best way to work out the needs of the user for a particular project?

Find out what the user needs to do. We run content workshops where we ask users, specialists, lawyers, whoever is relevant to work with us to define the user needs. Then we take site stats and metrics, the organisation's aims and anything we can get from Google Analytics on the subject. We put it all together and work out what we can provide.

Next, we write those in user stories. At Citizens Advice we have two levels. We still use task-based stories, but we also have advice-based stories. We need to be far more aware of cause and effect, not just the task the user wants to complete.

Do you approach content strategy differently when it comes to varying devices?

I really don't see the point. A lot of organisations think their design needs to be very cut down and their words more concise for mobiles and tablets. Why? If you can get away with a clean experience and fewer words, why are you making desktop users trawl through unnecessary content? You can be boring and pointless in five words or fewer. Make all your words count and the device won't matter.

How do you think style guides are going to change in the future?

I have seen too many styles guides with a firm foot still in the printing style guide era. I would like to see more reliance on testing and research, rather than just tonal whims. I had the GOV.UK style guide researched by the University of Reading. I wanted the government's communications to be the most efficient they could be. That means lab and academic research. I think, as behavioural science and research becomes more sophisticated and revealing, our style guides will have to keep up, so we keep up with our audiences.

What benefits have you seen from successful content strategy?

For GOV.UK, people need to understand their rights. A clear content strategy can, quite literally, keep people out of jail. For Citizens Advice, it means people can get guidance when they need it most. In both cases the benefit may not be numbers and website traffic, it may be knowing we are genuinely helping people.

I think you can only count a strategy as successful if the audience can go in, get their task done and leave knowing they have what they want and haven't had to work too hard for it. If you have a coherent message across all channels, using the audience's vocabulary, you make it effortless and faster for the user. That's success.

Words: Sarah Richards

Sarah Richards will be speaking at Generate London on 17-18 September: buy your ticket today.

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