Follow these principles when writing content for services (especially when accessed online), to ensure your service is simple to use and accessible to all.
What is content design
Content design exists to help people get what they need from the government/state simply and quickly, using the most appropriate content format or medium available. It focuses on what the user needs to know when they need to know it, rather than writing everything the government/state might want to say. This makes it easier for the user to find what they need, to understand it and act on it.
We use a number of techniques to make sure we provide good content, such as:
- writing in plain language: we use simple language because it makes it easier for all users to complete the task they need to do
- front-loading titles, where the most important information or word is at the beginning
- putting the most important information at the top of the page
- reducing the amount of published content and removing unnecessary content
- splitting big pieces of content into smaller pieces
- using simple sentences – usually no more than 25 words
- creating short paragraphs
You’ll need to consider all of this when writing your content.
Technical and unfamiliar terms
Where you need to use technical terms, you can. You just need to explain what they mean the first time you use them. This is not the same as government/state jargon – there is almost always a simpler alternative for jargon.
Explain all unfamiliar terms or jargon if you must use them. By giving full information and using common words, we’re helping people speed up their reading and understand information in the fastest possible way.
Legal content, including privacy policies and declarations, should be written in plain language. It’s important that users understand content and that we present complicated information simply.
Your content needs to be legally accurate, but it doesn’t have to quote or reference the law or legislation.
Where evidence shows there’s a clear user need for including a complicated legal term, explain it in plain language.
Keep your pages short
Content within services (whether online transactions or paper forms) is usually limited to microcopy: short strings of text that help the user navigate through and complete a service. On occasion, longer text is necessary on the first page of a transaction (sometimes known as a ‘start page’), or where detailed instructions for onward journeys are necessary. In these cases you will need to consider the length of pages.
Use short words instead of long words
When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words (3, 4 or 5 letters) that follow it. So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will read less. Keep it simple.
Use short sentences
Some people with learning disabilities read letter for letter. They also cannot fully understand a sentence if it’s too long. People with moderate learning disabilities can understand sentences of 5 to 8 words without difficulty. By using common words we can help all users understand sentences of around 25 words.
Capital letters are harder to read
When you learn to read English, you start with a mix of upper and lower case but you do not start understanding uppercase until you’re around 6 years old. As content designers, we do not want people to read. We want people to recognise the ‘shape’ of the word and understand. It’s a lot faster. Capital letters are reputed to be 13 to 18% harder for users to read. So we try to avoid them. Block capitals indicate shouting in common online usage. We should not be shouting.
Ampersands (&) can be hard to understand
Ampersands (&) are not allowed in body text, and best avoided where possible. The reason is that ‘and’ is easier to read or skim. Some people with lower literacy levels also find ampersands harder to understand.
Avoid excessive punctuation
Punctuation can slow people down. When people have to use a government service online, it’s unlikely to be the focal point of their day. Content designers must write for quick and easy reading.
Users with low literacy often do not recognise the meaning of certain types of punctuation at a glance, such as an apostrophe showing possession. Using common words and simple sentence structures can have a big impact on reading speed.
Service name and URLs
Your service’s URL will take the form of do-a-thing.service.gov.cy.
The stem of your URL (the part before ‘service.gov.cy’) should describe the action provided by the service, such as apply-for-visa.service.gov.cy. This means they are based on user need rather than the (current) name of a policy, scheme or service, which might change.
Naming your service
Your service helps people achieve a goal, so the name should reflect that. Use the words your users would use to describe the action, such as ‘Apply for a visa’, or ‘Claim a benefit’ – it will help people find your service using a search engine.
Use the same vocabulary as your audience so they know what it is without needing to know how the government/state labels things. If people cannot find your page or understand the content, they will not be able to act on it or know it’s for them.
Start pages explain:
- what the purpose of your service is
- high-level eligibility criteria
- ways to access your service (such as online, paper form or phone)
- contact details for help (if available)
Make your page titles unique
When naming pages in the digital route to your service, the titles must be unique and informative so that users know which page they are on. Duplicate titles can confuse users. This is particularly true for those with visual, cognitive or mobility impairments.
Check your title makes sense
Your title should make sense by itself – for example ‘Your details’ does not say much, but ‘Apply for a visa – your details’ does.
Writing content for other channels
You should use content design principles when writing letters, emails or SMS messages to ensure a consistent and joined-up experience across channels.
Avoid links that take users away from your service – they might struggle to find their way back.
Provide links in context
If you need to provide a link, make sure it is provided in context, at the point in the content at which it’s useful.
Do not link directly to attachments or documents
Link to the publication page (also known as an ‘interstitial’ page) – this is the page the attachment is linked to from, not to the attachment itself.
You should not link directly to attachments because:
- users might miss important information or context by bypassing the publication page
- links to file attachments, such as PDF, can break when pages are updated
- users cannot navigate back to the publication page from file attachments
If the page you are linking to has more than one attachment, be clear which one you are directing the user to.
Writing link text
When writing a link, make it descriptive and front-load it with relevant terms instead of using something generic like ‘click here’ or ‘more’. Generic links do not make sense when out of context or tell users where a link will take them. They also do not work for people using screen readers, who often scan through lists of links to navigate a page. It’s important the links are descriptive so they make sense in isolation.
For links that lead to information rather than action, use the text about that information as the link. For example, ‘accessibility statement’. Consider using the title of the page the link goes to as your link text. If your link takes the user to a page where they can start a task, start your link with a verb. For example, ‘submit your income tax report’.
Do not use the same link text to link to different places
Links help people scan content, so do not swamp them with too many or link to the same tool or web page throughout your page. Link to online services first, unless an offline alternative is better for your users. Think about the size of the link users need to select. For users with reduced motor skills, a one word link could be very difficult to select.
Avoid anchor links
Anchor links are used to take a user to a particular section of a page.
They can take users to either:
- another section on the same page
- a section on a different page
It’s not good practice to use anchor links in your content. Anchor links can be disorientating for some users with access needs who may have problems getting back to the previous page. You should also avoid using anchor links to content on the page the user is already reading.
You can add links anywhere in body text, but not in titles, summaries or subheadings.
Link to a specific page, not the website’s homepage.
[Read more about link text] in the GOV.CY Content Design Manual.
Only use images if they are necessary to show instructions or a task that cannot be achieved by text alone.
Avoid images which contain text. Write it in the body text instead.
Images must be described with words for people who cannot see them.
‘Easy read’ uses pictures to support the meaning of text.
Tables should only be used to present data.
Do not use tables for cosmetic changes to layout, for example to present a list because you think it looks better that way.
Consider the alternatives
A simple table can often be replaced with a:
- series of bulleted lists with headings and subheadings
- single bulleted list, using commas to separate the information
You should provide services in Cyprus’s official languages.
Consider whether there is value in providing services in other languages, such as English for those who cannot understand Greek or Turkish. English is not likely to be their first language, so avoid phrasal verbs and colloquial expressions.