When Australians are planning a trip overseas and need reliable information to help them travel safely, they go to Smartraveller.gov.au. It’s the trusted source of information on current conditions in countries around the world — everything from avoiding political unrest to finding safe drinking water. Managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Smartraveller also lets Australians know what help the Department can provide.

DFAT realised that their website wasn’t meeting its purpose. DFAT staff overseas were being inundated with calls. Travellers were expecting help that DFAT doesn’t provide. And content was part of the problem. Research showed that Smartraveller’s information was far too complex. People would need a university education to understand it. 

Given the tight timelines and the sheer volume of content to be delivered, DFAT knew they didn’t have the capacity to manage the project in-house. They came to True North because of our track record delivering large government website content projects.

Here’s how we did it.

Fast facts

We completed more content than even our best-case projections, and came in on time and under budget.

In just 24 weeks, TNC:

  • conducted an in-depth discovery phase to define the project scope, including timeframes, deliverables and the approvals process
  • delivered over 177 country-specific travel advisories, 33 non-travel advisories and 38 general pages, most containing more than 4000 words.
  • mobilised and managed a flexible workforce of 20 experienced writers through the peaks and troughs of content production

Client feedback

“A wholly pleasant and wonderful collaboration” – Christine Klement, Smartraveller Campaign Manager, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


 Travel advisory for Indonesia (retrieved November 9, 2019)


Travel advisory for Indonesia (retrieved 6 December, 2019)

1. Discovery

We started with a discovery phase to capture DFAT’s needs and understand the field. This work included:

  • a review of the website and user experience research
  • workshops with DFAT to understand how they work 
  • comparing the Smartraveller content style guide with the DFAT style guide and the whole-of-government GOV.AU Content Guide to ensure consistency
  • developing a tactical plan to deliver the work

Out of this work, we distilled two main goals for the rewrite:

  • Set and meet readability benchmarks so that most adult readers could understand the website content
  • Accurately communicate travel risks so readers were encouraged to look after themselves. This would free DFAT staff in diplomatic missions around the world to focus on more complex work.
  1. Pilot

On large content projects, we always run a pilot: pick a small sample of content to write and approve. By doing this, we road-test our workflows and systems in a low-risk environment. Then we roll the system out across the rest of the content.

We had a plan: two writing teams to rewrite the pages from start to finish. A TNC lead writer would check each page against the three required style guides (Smartraveller, DFAT and the whole-of-government content guide). Next, a DFAT team member would check the page for accuracy. Finally, a TNC writer would create a summary of the page’s key points.

We soon learned that this plan wasn’t the right fit. There were too many peaks and troughs in the writing and approvals process. We needed a more flexible workflow, so we collaborated with DFAT to make that happen. We continued adapting throughout the project, while keeping the content moving. For example, the end workflow grew to include:

  • a stage to simplify importing and formatting the original website content into the new beta site layout before rewriting started, so we could batch the material ready for writers
  • a series of context and consistency checks before DFAT staff first checked the content, to reduce their QA time
  1. Delivery

On large website projects, the first impulse is often to bring full-time contractors in-house. For DFAT, that wasn’t the right option. Their security clearance requirements meant that DFAT couldn’t onboard contractors quickly enough. And the workload was just too variable: over the project, the number of contractors would either be too high, or far too low to get the work done.

That’s why True North created a flexible staffing model. We had a core team of lead writers throughout the project, and brought on extra resources when we needed them. Because of this, we could rapidly scale our team up and down as needed. 

We kept DFAT in the loop from start to finish. TNC established a reporting system that included:

  • weekly conference call check-ins with all senior project team members to keep the project on track to meet all milestones
  • monthly face-to-face meetings at DFAT’s offices to keep stakeholders informed
  • open channels of communication with EY, who were managing the design and build
  • written twice-weekly reports to show what had been achieved in the previous week and highlight any potential problem pages (aka ‘blockers’)

This set-up made it easy to identify problems early and take action.

However, there are lessons that can be learned from every project, and Smartraveller was no exception. Changes we’d recommend for future projects of this type include:

  • Designing a larger content pilot: we began with two pages, but these weren’t enough to give a true impression of either the variation or the similarities in content across the 177 travel advisory pages. In any similar project, we’d recommend including more pages in the pilot – possibly one from each major section.
  • Spending more time up front agreeing style conventions: project style guides will naturally evolve over time. However, the more consensus project team members can establish initially, the less rework needs to happen later on.
  1. Results

With this approach, we delivered more content than even our best-case scenario: we completed all travel advisories, and some extra advice pages.

We met the plain English targets:

  • The percentage of sentences written in passive voice went from 15% to 2%
  • The average sentence length went from 11 words to 7
  • The average reading age required to understand the content went from 15 to 13

We also updated a writing style guide for this content, so DFAT can maintain the gains into the future.  

The project was a resounding success, and this was due to DFAT’s relationship with us. This included: 

  • DFAT being very clear on both their goals for the site and the readability targets they wanted to reach with the rewritten web content.
  • TNC sharing that goal, and working to achieve it in the most efficient way possible.
  • TNC adapting systems and processes as new requirements for the project came to light.
  • DFAT being involved throughout the project at a high level, being pragmatic about discussing evolving project goals, and being responsive to TNC’s questions and recommendations.

The Smartraveller project shows how clear, measurable project goals, combined with the right project team, leads to good outcomes. Because of our work with DFAT, Australian travellers can be more prepared and more self-reliant, and make good decisions to keep themselves safe.


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