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NCVO champions the voluntary sector and volunteering. They provide expert support and advice to over 14,000 member organisations.

When people come to your website they want quick, clear answers. Using a pattern to plan and write your site's content can help you give them that.

Steps to creating useful information pages by using a pattern to write with

You need to know:

  • What type of information or guidance do your website visitors want? How detailed do they need it to be?

  • Who are your website visitors and how do they like to take in information? How stressed are they when they visit your site?

  • Are they coming to find out what to do? Or do they want to persuade someone else that something needs to be done?

You may be able to get some sense of this by looking at statistics for your website's most used pages. That means pages that have both a high number of visitors and a reasonable amount of time spent on the page, or a good scroll rate down the page.

You could also do a research project with your website visitors.

NCVO did extensive user research before designing their content pattern. They observed people searching the internet and trying to find out answers to questions from existing webpages. This included their own webpages and many others. 

They tested 3 prototype content patterns. 

One was written information, using short sentences and paragraphs, headers and bullet points. It was designed to be skimmable.

Another was very similar to that, but used lots of images. 

The final one used illustrated cartoons.

They learnt that people either loved or hated the cartoons. They discovered that some people liked the images, but others got side-tracked into wondering exactly what each image was for.

They learnt that the page of skimmable writing was most useful. People requested the ability to be able to jump down the page to things they were most interested in. They also talked about how examples might help them understand things better.

The pattern this recipe focuses on is designed for information pages where people’s primary need is “what should I do?”

It might not be so useful if:

  • Your website visitors are in high levels of distress. They may want more control over what they read than this pattern provides.

  • Your information pages are about “Why should I do something?” not “What should I do?” When you are trying to convince people of things, you need a range of different tactics, including a pattern.

  • You have a high proportion of visitors who need a lot of images on the page to feel that it is accessible. This pattern does not use images.

Part of NCVO's content pattern

NCVO created the “What to do (with examples)” pattern to meet the needs of the highest proportion of visitors to their site.

It is a pattern for information seekers - people who come to the site with a question they want to answer. It focuses on making it as easy as possible for them to get a reliable, full answer to that question. 

It then offers them choices to go on to further related information. 

It is designed to be as skimmable as possible, using headers, an anchor link menu and lots of bullet point lists. 

It also has a format for adding examples to the text, without making the page feel too long.

It is a very flexible content pattern. Many others would set specific headers that you would always see on the page. NCVO produce information on a very wide range of topics so they decided not to do this.

NCVO are also experimenting with other patterns to meet different user needs. They are trialling “5 reasons” videos and shareable text for people who want to convince someone that something is important.

You need to work out if your content management system or web-page editor has all the components you need to use the “What to do” content pattern. Talk to someone who posts new articles or makes new pages regularly to find out about it.

All systems should have most of the things you need already available:

  • Header 1, 2 and 3 (title, subheadings first level, subheadings second level)

  • Body text (for sentences and paragraphs)

  • Bullet points (to make lists)

  • Link function (to add links to the end of the article)

Things you need to check:

  • Do you have an Anchor link menu or table of contents option? Turn this on. It will make all the header 2's on the page into anchor links and create a styled table of them as links. It will appear at the top of the page or in a sidebar depending on your website design.

  • Do you have a box, usually known as a “call out box”? This allows you to create examples with a different background or width to the main flow of text. If you do have one, is it subtle enough to work for examples without interrupting the flow too much?

If you don’t have these you may be able to use workarounds or hacks that achieve a similar effect. If you are improving your information pages as part of a wider website project you could add new templates or components.

NCVO use Wagtail CMS now. When they first started using this content pattern they were using a CMS called Plone. They needed developer support to create a call out box that worked for examples. The first attempts were too bright, and interrupted the flow of text too much.

They also worked with their Wagtail developer to add styling to their anchor menu. Each item has a down arrow instead of a bullet point, to make it clear that you can skip down the page.

If you have multiple people creating content for your website, it can be challenging to make your pages consistent. Use the content pattern as one part of the toolkit that helps you to do that.

You might also need:

  • A style guide (this usually covers things about grammar rules, but also things about the tone you are aiming for and the language to use)

  • A prioritising process (to help you decide which pieces of information to apply the new pattern for first)

  • An editing process (they can help make sure that the pattern and guide are being followed properly)

  • To do some training on how to use more complicated aspects of your content pattern

Different people react to using a style guide and content pattern in different ways. Some people find it hard to believe that most people on the internet skim not read. Training can help.

NCVO carried out several projects where the agency who created this pattern did the content editing. The NCVO in house content editors proofread and checked that standards were being maintained.

Over the last 4 years more content editors at NCVO have led projects with a growing range of subject specialists. They have discovered that overall, the pattern is easy to use. However, some elements are harder to get used to.

People are used to writing introductions, so they have to spend a lot of time cutting those back. 

Also, the particular style of example that was designed for the original pages takes time to create. The content creator has to pick them and cut them right back to specifically illustrate a particular element of the main guidance. On projects with less time to spend on editing, there is not always time for this process. So NCVO are also experimenting with other types of examples.

If you can, test with the people the content is for to see if it meets their needs. Never ask people if they like the content. Try one of these instead:

  • Ask people to read something and summarise its most important message

  • Ask people what they will do next after reading something

  • Give people highlighters. Then ask them to mark content that was helpful or confusing in different colours

  • Give people a list of tone words and ask them to mark which ones fit

Ask your subject specialists to watch some of these content tests. It may help them understand why you are asking them to follow a pattern and style guide.

Find out more about how to test content. Read the Catalyst Resources guide.

NCVO tested with front line staff who support people that will use the content and with people who will use it. They used a mixture of all these types of tests. The tests confirmed that the style and content pattern helped people find what they needed.

The testing also showed where individual pieces of advice could be clearer. NCVO then used the editing phase to improve those elements.

Further information

Thinking about how to provide information or guidance online?

Working on readability?

For more on this guide