Start with a question, not a message

Paul Boag

When it comes to writing the copy for your website, start with a users question rather than the message you wish to communicate.

When it comes to revising the content on a website many recommend starting with an audit. On one level this makes a lot of sense. Look at what you have and revise accordingly. But, on another level this is the wrong approach.

My problem is that this starts from the organisations point of the view, rather than that of the user. It starts by saying, what content do we have that we want to share? Sure, it may need rewriting to be more ‘user friendly’ but it still makes one massive assumption. That users care about that content in the first place.

I often see this damaging mindset. Managers who say we should put the brochure online. As digital professionals we might go as far as suggesting it needs rewriting. But rarely do we ask whether users care about the content of a brochure at all.

Instead we should be adopting a ‘question first’ approach to content. This begins with understanding what it is users want to know.

Knowing what questions users have

Gone are the days when people just surf the web. Today they come to your website either wanting to complete a task or get an answer to a question.

Finding out what a user wants to know is not rocket science. You can either ask them with a single question survey or look at their search terms.

A simple survey is often the best way of getting to know what questions users have.
A simple survey is often the best way of getting to know what questions users have.

Also a quick chat with your customer facing staff will give you a list of questions. If you have a call centre team, they are a particularly good source of these questions because they hear them everyday.

Once you have your questions, now is the time to match it with what you have.

Matching content to questions

It maybe that you have answers to most of the questions users have. In that case, by all means, reuse content you already have. Sure, it may need rewriting to more directly address the question, but you have done most of the hard work.

But you will also spot gaps. Places where a user is asking a question that you don’t have copy to answer. This is where you will have to write fresh content. These questions also show the problem with a copy first approach. In the old model they would have remained unanswered.

Finally there is a more subtle problem that needs addressing. For some questions that you have identified the answer will be, “it depends”. Keep an eye out for these questions because they often lead to confusing answers.

In such situations ask yourself, “what is the most common answer?” This should be front and centre in your copy.

A great example of this is a question the Government Digital Service identified. Users wanted to know what the VAT rate was. VAT is a tax applied to some goods and services in the UK. But the rate varies for some products such as children’s car seats and home energy. Then there are some things that are exempt from the tax. In short it is confusing and the answer to the question is, “it depends”.

That said, the majority of users want to know the standard VAT rate. That is why the Government Digital Service made sure they led with this. They want to serve the majority of people first, before going on to deal with edge cases.

Don't get bogged down in complexity. Follow the example of and provide the answer most people care about first.
Don’t get bogged down in complexity. Follow the example of and provide the answer most people care about first.

Of course, it would be a lot easier to just take your existing content and put it online. This all sounds like a lot of work.

Writing the copy

I won’t pretend that writing copy is easy. In fact it is an area that organisations under estimate. That said, there are ways to make it faster and more fun too.

One local government decided to take a questions first approach and came up with an innovative way of producing their copy. They decided to have a content hackathon.

They dedicated a day to answering as many user questions as possible. They grabbed people from across the organisation and volunteers from outside. They put them in a room together with a constant supply of beer and pizza. The idea was to make the day both fun and productive.

They covered the wall with user questions written on post it notes. Anybody in the room could go and select a question they wished to answer. They researched the answer using existing material and then wrote it down.

This was then passed to a small team of editors who checked the writing style and edited the copy. Later internal stakeholders revised answers to make sure they were accurate.

This approach allowed them to get through large amounts of copy in a short time. But it achieved that while still remaining user centric.

I think in other circumstances this could go a step further. I think you could get your audience writing their own answers!

Get your users writing their own answers

Let’s say you were a charity. It would be possible to use some of your volunteers to write answers. Or maybe you are a university. You could assemble a team of students who will do anything for beer and pizza!

The huge advantage of this is that they know how they want the questions answered. They will also write in a tone that they want to hear.

Sure, it would still need editing. Yes, internal stakeholders would need to review it for accuracy. But it would significantly increase the relevancy of the final copy.

It’s all about relevancy

That is what is crucial at the end of the day. Any copy we put online has to be relevant to the users needs. Too much of the copy on our websites is just there because some senior manager demanded it.

Producing content ‘questions first’ ensures it remains relevant. It also gives you a way of resisting those senior management requests. Surely that makes it worth a try.