Government websites face a specific set of challenges; drawn out procurement processes, decentralized communications, multiple stakeholder groups, and slow adoption of new technologies. When it comes to content, these challenges can lead to a site where information is difficult to find, hard to understand, or at worst conflicting and inaccurate. A site like that causes friction for your constituents, and that friction can quickly erode trust and confidence with the most important person in your communication - your audience.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! With a few tweaks in service of a clear content strategy, you can vastly increase the usability of the content on your agency’s or department’s web site.
Change #1: Use your users’ language
Like any large organization, government agencies tend to develop their own language over time, adopting abbreviations and acronyms for things. This language often ends up on public-facing web sites, despite the fact that the words used may not be meaningful to people who don’t work for the agency. When your users encounter a site full of confusing language, they experience friction with your site, which immediately leads to a loss of confidence and an uptick in frustration.
When you’re inside an organization and you use a set of words every day, it can be easy to forget these words may not mean anything outside of the organization. You need to make sure your navigation, calls-to-actions, search keywords and other copy is using plain language understandable by your users.
If you’re wondering what words your users are using for some of your internal terminology, looking at the logs of search queries can be a useful guide. By charting the path between what users searched for and where they ended up (a process known as intent modeling), you can get a better sense of what language your users are using to describe your content, and adjust accordingly.
What does this button (from a federal agency site) do? Who knows?
What are all of these? Who knows?
Change #2: Organize your content meaningfully, not by your organizational chart
Okay so this goes beyond content strategy - but it is so important we thought it was worth including. It’s common to find a navigation scheme on a government site that is a direct reflection of the agency’s organizational chart. This might make sense to an employee, who knows which department is responsible for which set of information, but to a user this can lead to a guessing game where they have to hunt around to find what they need. They don’t know the internal workings of your agency the way you do and they shouldn’t have to! By letting your content drive your information architecture (IA), you can expose information to your users in a way that is both meaningful to them and easy to navigate. Your IA is how you connect your content to your users, and it’s perfectly natural that it doesn’t mirror the way your agency is organized - what matters is that it makes sense to your users.
So what does make sense for your users?
Do they know which tax form they need by its publication ID number? Or that your Communications Office handles all help requests? Probably not. To learn how your users think about and organize information, we recommend card sorting. Users are asked to group content logically and apply either their own or pre-selected labels to their groupings. The data from the card sort is then analyzed and used as an input to create a user-centered IA that replaces your organizational-centered one.
Where’s the information I need? Who knows?
Change #3: Less is more
Over time, it’s easy for the amount of content on a government web site to increase. Regulations change, people change jobs, subject matter experts come and go. Often people are hesitant to change existing content for fear that people are using it and they don’t want to mess with something that’s in use, so...they make a new version. And another one. Then another one. Before you know it, it’s easy to end up with multiple, often conflicting, versions of the same piece of content. Not only does this confuse your users, it hurts your SEO and and makes it hard to know what the real “source of truth” is on your site.
There are many ways to end up with too much content. The best way out of that situation is to periodically validate your content needs via regular content audits. By establishing some simple audit criteria (based on user need), you have a standard against which you can judge your existing content and decide if it needs to be updated, archived, deleted, or left alone. In addition to cutting down on redundant, ineffective content, regular audits also help keep you familiar with your content, which can help you plan for the future and avoid redundancy.
Developing a content strategy can feel overwhelming at times. While you can certainly benefit from digging deeper, and getting into personas, user journeys, and more, you can have a major impact on your site’s usability - and usefulness - by implementing the suggestions above.
Now that you’ve improved your site’s content strategy, it’s time to focus on making your government site accessible to anyone and everyone. Check out this playbook for some easy-to-implement accessibility tips.