The words you choose matter when it comes to helping people to use your services. Here's how to make sure you get your language right.

Offline or online it’s the same: the words that you use influence how people behave. What you say and how you say it influences every part of their service experience. Offline we think of this as ‘how we talk to our beneficiaries’. Online we call this ‘content design’.

However, many charities won’t have heard of content design. So we talked to Sarah Richards of Content Design London about why charities should look into it. Then we asked her for ten simple tips anyone can use, especially if they’ve not heard of it before.

Content design is simple and non-technical

It’s an evidence-based process anyone can use to plan, write and manage better content. It involves checking easy-to-find data and evidence and using what you learn to make your content more relevant, more efficient and easier to consume for your audience.

Content could include service descriptions, online instructions, interface copy, data presentation, menus, online forms… anywhere words appear online.

Empathetic content

Content design is about more than just writing. Because when your beneficiaries are stressed and in need their online behaviour becomes more extreme. More will read everything, more will scan and click all your links and buttons, and fewer will take the middle ground. So you need to work with how people behave. This means producing content that makes it easier for them to get information and take action, without adding to their cognitive load.

This isn’t about being a good writer. It’s about understanding your audience well enough. It’s about having empathy with their behaviours and needs. Especially now when people are isolated and worried about how coronavirus and its ripples are affecting their life.

Service content is not the same as news

A lot of content is about providing a service, which is distinct from news.

News is passive and doesn’t ask the reader for an action. Service content is action-orientated. If you are writing for a service you need to get in the mindset of action. If your users are looking for help then it’s good to give them something to act on. For example people are experiencing a loss of control around coronavirus, so they’re pleased when they’re asked to do something positive, like handwashing and social distancing.

Data and evidence to help you design content

There are several easy places to get this.

Google Trends

We use this tool to understand the natural language people use. This can be different to the language your organisation is used to using. It’s even more important to use people’s natural language online because you can’t offer them the other non-verbal cues you would face-to-face or over the phone.

For example here’s a comparison of the words people use when they are in debt and another for when they are thinking about children’s mental health.


Use forums to understand people’s priorities and questions. They are a gold mine of language and insights. The language people use here is the language you want to use. The questions they are asking most often are the questions you want to answer. For example if you are a debt advice charity right now people may be asking questions about debt and coronavirus.

Listening to your users

Pay careful attention to the words people use when talking to you for the first time. This will also yield insights into the type of content and words to use. You might have some of this insight already but it always pays to listen to their language before they get to know you and become influenced by the words your organisation uses.

Ten ways to create better-designed content

Do your research. Be methodical. Write it down.

1. Only publish what you need to

Focus on content that only you can produce, where only your charity can add value. For example if you’re a small mental health charity, publish content about your offer. Then link to other sources that provide really good mental health advice, rather than writing your own.

Or perhaps one of your services has started using Zoom with its beneficiaries. Explain how it works in the context of your service and link to Zoom’s existing guide e.g. “It’s a video conferencing tool. We send you a link. You turn your camera on if you’re comfortable to. Here’s more information on Zoom.”

2. Don’t duplicate

Don’t duplicate content across your site. If you swamp people with similar information across several pages they will get confused and leave.

3. Structure your content

Headings tell a story whatever you are writing, whether it’s a page or an interface. They help people understand what they are going to get. Front-load headings with key words or terms. Headings are good for accessibility. Headings should not be questions.

4. Use your beneficiaries’ language

When we skim or scan content our brains look for language we can understand. So use the words your beneficiaries use in your content’s title, first fifteen words and headings. This helps them trust you and know they are in the right place.

If you’re unsure how to get started, think about how you write a tweet. Tweets try to get complex information across using a small number of words people already use. Writing some instructions or designing an interface is the same.

5. Be clear and consistent

Just because people read what you wrote doesn’t mean they understood it. Use clear language and consistent terms. This makes it easier to interact with. It means more people understand you. Avoid metaphors and similes. Be careful of colloquial phrases unless your research suggests otherwise.

6. Use active sentences

Use active sentences. The human brain understands active sentences better than passive ones. So give your content to people in this way.

7. Front-load sentences

Put the most important information at the start of a sentence. This is important for any kind of online content.

8. Reduce your words

When you write more, people understand less. Aim for around 19 words or fewer per sentence and definitely no more than 24.

Design your content. Then go back and remove 30% of its words.

9. Group content by theme

Reduce cognitive load by clustering content in ways your users expect.

For example, when designing an online form group name and contact details together. Then group other similar question types together.

10. Reconsider the FAQ format

Questions take longer to read than statements. Yes, you absolutely should be answering people’s common questions. But FAQs aren’t the best way for your users to get those answers. Why is this? Have you ever noticed that GOV.UK doesn’t use FAQ pages?

How to know that your content is working better

Five ways to test your new content and gauge its impact.

1. Testing

Use regular content testing techniques.

2. Self testing

Print out your page. Cut it up into sentences and paragraphs. Then see if each one still makes sense on its own. Remove those that don’t.

3. Guerrilla testing

Ask people to read your content then explain to you what it is saying to them. You will quickly find out if they don’t understand it. At the moment you can’t do this on the street but you can do it over video calls.

4. Ask the content design community for help

The Canadian Digital Service asked Content Design London (CDL) to have a look at their content. CDL tweeted it out and people tweeted back what they thought it was saying and what they didn’t understand.

5. Your audience’s behaviour will change.

They will come to your services and you’ll notice they are more informed. They will know what to expect. You’ll spend less time explaining. You might also find fewer people accessing your service when they don’t need it. And more for whom it is the right service. When Citizens Advice re-designed their content more people self-served online. The knock-on effect was that bureaus had more face-to-face time for those with the most complex issues.

You’re ready to get started now

Follow the content design tips above and your service will become easier to use. But if you want to learn more…

Big hat tip to Sarah for her input into this article.

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