In August 2020, I was lucky enough to present a workshop on ‘Mastering Content’ at the Social Media in Government Conference.
My mission with this one was to help people see their content more clearly: what’s working and what isn’t? Each person from each government department and council received a customised review of their website, and a piece of content that they chose. In this review, I answer the question: is your content likely to achieve what you want it to? Is it readable, easy to navigate, and above all, does it make sense?
Here’s a snapshot of a sample report
You can see a whole sample report here.
This post gives more detail on the issues I raised in each report. Let’s dive in!
This is an overall measure of how easy your content is to understand. Readability is calculated based on two factors:
1. The number of words in each sentence
The maximum sentence length for a good level of comprehension is 25 words, and ideally closer to 15.
2. The number of complex words in a sentence
A complex word is one with more than three syllables. These words are often (but not always) less familiar to our users, and take longer to process.
Once we have those numbers we use a formula which gives us a score out of 100. A score of 60 indicates that someone who’d finished high school would be able to understand this information.
In your reports, we’ve used the Flesch Kincaid readability score.
If you want to improve your score, you can:
- Break up long sentences into shorter ones
- Use bullet points for list information
- Use plain english alternatives to complex words
Passive voice is an indirect way of writing. It buries the person or thing doing the action. Here’s an example of passive voice.
‘The man was bitten by the dog’
Compare that with the active form.
‘The dog bit the man.’
You can read a full grammatical explanation here.
Sentences written in passive voice can be harder for readers to decode. However, it’s okay to use passive voice:
1. To avoid getting someone in trouble. For example, in the sentence ‘the report was not completed on time’ does not mention who missed the deadline. In contrast, ‘Ralph did not complete the report on time’ is written in active voice, but drops Ralph in hot water!
2. Where it flows better. For example, consider this passage:
“Shivering, I walked deeper into the forest. The tree branches were bent by the weight of snow.”
The second sentence is written in the passive voice. But I wrote it this way so I could group related concepts (forest – tree branches) together.
In a nutshell: it’s ok to use passive voice sometimes, but it’s usually a good idea to cut it back.
We’ve covered this already under ‘readability.’
For this part of your report, I manually reviewed a cross-section of your web pages against best practices in usability and digital marketing.
Your site needs to tell people exactly what you do, and it needs to do that quickly. Research shows that people will leave your website in as little as 10 seconds if they don’t see something of value to them.
In government, we may have a monopoly on the service. But we don’t have a monopoly on providing information about that service. If people can’t get what they need from us, they may look elsewhere (such as paying a private sector provider). Or just get really frustrated.
Once you’ve decided on a purpose, your content should be relevant to that purpose. Minimise distractions.
In government, there’s often a temptation to include ‘just in case content.’ News items published because our stakeholders have directed it. Warnings and qualifiers to cover risks that may be extremely unlikely to materialise, and low in impact if they ever do.
The net result is clutter: our readers can’t find what they need because there’s too much information crowding it out.
Your site is like a supermarket: people want everything organised into logical categories; and clear signposts, with language that guides them to what they need. These categories and language should make sense to our users — our view of the world in government will often be very different to what people ‘out there’ think.
There are some best practices I’ve used for this assessment, including:
- Are labels clear and descriptive? (avoiding vague catch-all labels such as ‘resources’)
- Does the way information is categorised make sense? (avoiding dumping miscellaneous items together)
However, to be confident that our navigation works, we should always test it with users.
This is a big field, but if you’re looking for an overview start here.
Your organisation has a legal responsibility to provide accessible information, as set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. If you don’t meet accessibility standards, you risk breaching disability discrimination legislation.
For this assessment, I used the Lighthouse Analyser, which is an automated tool built into google chrome. It will flag some issues to consider, but is not a substitute for a full accessibility audit.
Use the right format for what you want to communicate. Particularly in government, text will be the best approach for precise, compliance-focused content, or for delivering a high volume of information.
However, visual storytelling through video is often a good fit for delivering an engaging narrative. Diagrams can show relationships between concepts far more economically than text.
Whatever format you use, it should be chosen based on insights into what your audiences need, and it should be integrated into the site experience. Government websites tend to rely far too heavily on PDF downloads, which creates problems in version control, user experience and accessibility.
To review your sample, we used most of the same metrics as for your website, plus a few extras.
This sentence is hard to read/very hard to read
This also uses readability metrics.
This highlights long words
An adverb is a word used to describe an action, like ‘she ran home quickly‘. Adverbs can be useful, but often we can get the point across by changing our verb, like ‘she raced home.’
About our tools
We generated your readability statistics using Visible Thread, an enterprise-grade readability auditing tool. Visible Thread helps organisation track the readability of their entire website. It’s used by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, NSW Education Standards Authority, EPA Victoria and Brisbane City Council. If you’re interested in how Visible Thread might work for your organisation, get in touch.
The highlighted sample was generated using Hemingway, a free online readability analyser. It is quick to use, though only works with one sample at a time.
How to fix your content
The reports were just a snapshot of the issues. I am definitely here to help you take action: training, coaching, or a quick coffee to show you how to make your content work. Get in touch any time.