Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Our top 5 tips for remote working

Technology promises the idea that people can work from anywhere. Ever since the first conference call in 1947, each new communication tool promised greater freedom from the 9-5. From email and mobile phones, to cloud-based software and newer tools like Trello and Slack, it’s easier than ever to work outside of an office. According to a 2015 You Gov poll, 54% of workers are able to work remotely.

A new wave of tech companies are shunning expensive offices in Silicon Valley or East London. Instead, they hope to attract talented people by not restricting their hiring pool to one city and embracing remote teams.

An office worker in a clear blue sea, floating on an inflatable chair, and working on a laptop.
The typical stock photo does not match the reality of most remote workers.
Yet for every article about digital nomads or companies ditching their office, the reality for many workers is they have the option to work from home, but most of their colleagues are in a head office. Enjoying all the meetings, interactions and perks that come as part of an office environment.

Cancer Research UK is a national charity and 65% of our staff aren’t based in the London office. The Technology team is collaborating with more teams across the charity to build digital skills and capabilities. However, some of our ways of working can have a bias towards being in the same room. Which can be a problem when some of your team are sat next to you and some are at home.

I recently worked with a team based across the UK, something you’d expect when running and marketing fundraising events across the country. It became clear that we needed to adapt how we worked in order to make progress. So, we agreed as a team to apply a test and learn approach to how we worked. We made it an outcome of the work, alongside building and iterating a user journey for the new events. By the end, we would have at least found out some better ways of collaborating and communicating as a team.

One of the great things about working in Technology at Cancer Research UK is the collaborative environment. It’s easy to stroll over and ask a colleague for advice and teams demo their work in the open. We cover the walls in post its and roadmaps. There are stand ups twice a week with an open agenda, which is a great way to learn from others.

Working with teams who aren’t based in our main London office made me realise that all these things aren’t accessible to remote workers. While flexible and remote working are common here, we’re still trying to find ways to take our culture beyond the walls of the office.

Installing Skype and giving staff permission to work from home won’t automatically turn you into a high performing remote team. If this was the case, perhaps we’d all have abandoned our offices in favour of a beach in Bali. Instead, it’s a case of trying out new things, and being ok with the fact that your first virtual workshop may fail. Because even if stuff goes wrong you’ll learn a lot!

We’re already experimenting with finding out how to make it easier to collaborate and be more productive. We've been sharing tips in a Slack channel for remote workers, so here are 5 tips to help become more a remote friendly team.

1. Become remote friendly

Think about what contributes to a high performing team and don’t restrict this to within the office walls. Are open product demos, roadmaps on walls, decision making processes, even social occasions, inclusive to remote team members? There are lots of tips out there, like templates to run a remote retrospective and advice for running a remote show and tell demo.

2. If one person is remote, everyone is remote

Rather than have one person dial in from home, we’ve found it works better to have everyone dial in, so we all have the same experience. Communication is a big part of remote working and this is a simple way to make it more inclusive for everyone.

3. Virtual collaboration does work

Working remotely doesn’t have to mean only doing solitary tasks. Whether you’re mapping your assumptions to try and solve a problem, having a team retrospective or even a full design sprint, just give it a go! Try out virtual whiteboard tools such as Mural, Real Time Board or DIY your own using Google Draw. We often say things are easier face to face but Ele Gibson, whose job it is to get fundraising staff to embody agile and lean principles, challenges that assumption, "our virtual retrospective using Mural was genuinely fun and we worked more efficiently than when we're face to face."

4. Find out what works for you

Could working in a coffee shop boost your productivity? Lilli Peters, Senior Executive in the Community Development team, ran her own experiment to find out if changing her environment could improve how she worked. "I’ve definitely found it a welcome change of scenery. I’m not sure I’ll come out to coffee shops too often, but I might pop Spotify on at home more frequently." The reality of being a digital nomad may be less glamourous behind the Instagram filters, but if you try out different set ups, you can find out what helps you work best.

5. Don’t forget the social side of work

If you aren’t seeing each other in the office, it could be easy to feel less connected to your team says Rob Green Senior Manager, Support Insight & Testing. He works with a distributed team who have experimented with creative ways to address this challenge. Katie Cartwright, Business Development Manager, created a ‘Hall of Fame’ Trello board showing who everyone is with some background into who they are, what's important to them and how they can help. This is particularly useful for new starters. Why not ask your team how they want to celebrate birthdays, if the usual cake in the office is off the table.

These are just a few of things we’ve learnt from applying our test and learn mindset to how we work and we're continuing to find ways to improve, such as live streaming internal demos and stand ups. Longer term, as we prepare to move to our new head office building in Stratford in 2019, we're looking into what the future of work looks like. If you have any remote working tips, let us know in the comments.

Next time someone declines a workshop request because they are working from home, why not have a think about how you can include them and give it a try?

Leanne Griffin
Digital Proposition Manager

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Why your deadline will destroy your metrics (but only if you let it)

It’s a situation that everyone working in digital has experienced. After many workshops and much thinking, your team had agreed some beautifully user-centric, value-driven measurements for the work you’re  going to deliver. You talked about Lean Analytics, and discounted any vanity metric that wouldn’t provide an actionable insight. 

Everything was going great… until the Terrible Deadline approaches, and your team gets bombarded by requests for exactly those same vanity metrics you’d decided to ignore. Then, before you know it, you’re scrambling to put together reports for your stakeholders, using measurements you know won’t reflect the real value of the work you’re doing. 

The Terrible Deadline has managed to destroy your beautiful lean metrics - again! Sound familiar? 

If this is happening to you, what can you do to stop it? Unfortunately, I haven’t found the perfect silver bullet. However, there are some things worth trying, which could help put you back on the right path (and eventually take your metrics out of harm’s way).

1. Notice it’s happening
Having the self-awareness to notice that you’re moving away from the narrow path of value-driven, lean metrics and into the wilderness of vanity ones is half the battle. If you can pick up on this as a team, and if you can do so as soon as possible, you can fix things and stop the Terrible Deadline before it does too much damage. Of course, to notice things, you need the time and space for self-reflection. Which brings me to...

2. Meet as a team and talk about it
Team retrospectives, which come from the agile framework, are simply regular meetings that offer your team a safe space to reflect on how you’re working together (you can read more about retros here). Unfortunately, when deadlines approach and time seems tight, retros tend to be one of the first things to get sacrificed, in favour of emails and PowerPoints for the stakeholders. 

So now you’re in a vicious circle: your team is under pressure and not working well, and you don’t have the chance to talk about how to fix it. What to do? Very simply: make sure your retros stay in the diary, re-schedule them if someone can’t attend, or go ahead with a smaller group and share the outcomes later. But  don’t  let your team’s balance get sacrificed to the Terrible Deadline.

3. Show the problem to your stakeholders
Once you’ve met as a team and understood the impact of the Terrible Deadline on your metrics and on your ability to stay focused, bring these insights to your stakeholders. After all, they may have no idea of what’s happening in your group! Instead of simply pushing back on a certain metric or trying to justify why you’re not using it, explain how it’s disrupting and distracting your team. 

Make sure to bring specific examples of what this means in practice, so you can show rather than tell. And if you haven’t had this conversation before, be clear on what else you want to use to measure your work’s value, and why.

4. If you fail, try again, and fail better.
Perhaps once you’ve done this, the Terrible Deadline and its vanity metrics will go away - success! Perhaps they’ll become a bit quieter, but not disappear. Or perhaps you won’t be able to escape them. 

If that’s the case, don’t let this affect your commitment to being value-driven: instead, use this as a learning opportunity. What could you do differently next time to avoid being in the same situation? What conversations could you have had before the Terrible Deadline got in sight that would have helped you later down the line? Don’t forget to have an honest, post-delivery retrospective as a team and to capture these lessons somewhere visible for both yourselves and your stakeholders. Next time, you can all use these learnings as starting point for a team charter.

These are just some ideas of things to try out - we don’t have all the answers, but at Cancer Research UK, we’ve been trying to slay the Terrible Deadline monster and to empower teams to choose, and most importantly stick to, the metrics that help them deliver value, rather than the ones that make for nice PowerPoints. If you’ve ever faced similar battles, we would love to hear your thoughts!

Giulia Merlo
Lead Proposition Manager

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

What does digital fundraising really mean?

This is a Victorian book called ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ - a book full of all sorts of useful advice about everything. This book was the inspiration for the web.

The dream of the web was for a common space in which we can communicate by sharing information. And that’s what the web is today - a tool for communication between people, where the technology is largely an invisible part of the infrastructure. When Tim Berners Lee created the web, he built a place where any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere.

But it wasn’t just the technology that created the web, it was a mindset of openness, inclusivity, collaboration and trust that Tim and his contributors upheld. These became the guiding principles and vision of the web. These principles are constantly being challenged by people trying to monopolise the web and interfere with the information flow - intermediaries trying to get in the way.

I believe the best digital strategies are when organisations stay true to the principles of the web and they make the technology and the teams responsible for it - an invisible friend. Ultimately they try to get out of the way and let the humans figure out the best way to communicate with each other. 

How does this apply to Fundraising? And is this what digital fundraising is all about?

In 2010 I was recruited as a Digital Fundraising Manager at Alzheimer’s Society. My role was quite digital marketing heavy at first, and fundraising teams expected me to do all the ‘digital stuff’ for them. But I soon realised that this wasn’t a very good use of my time and, actually, it would be a lot more effective for me to get out of the fundraising teams' way and show them how to use the web for themselves.

So my job became about helping fundraising teams learn about the principles of the web (and it’s pretty much been the same ever since). It was about showing them how to use the web to better understand the people we want to give us money.

To my surprise, at the time not many other digital fundraising people had a role like mine and, most of the time, they were doing the ‘digital stuff’ for fundraising teams and not teaching them how to use the web. I've found that a really good test for understanding the digital maturity of a fundraising team would be to ask them what their definition of digital fundraising is. If their answer is more about supporting fundraising teams to learn about their supporters, I believe it shows that these fundraising teams are more digitally mature.

Recently, when someone asked on the (awesome) ‘Fundraising chat’ facebook group what the definition of digital fundraising was, the response was a really interesting mix of people saying that digital fundraising is either 'doing digital stuff for fundraising' or 'helping fundraisers to learn about their supporters'. So things have definitely moved on - but we still have some way to go as a sector.

My definition of digital fundraising

Digital fundraising is about helping fundraising teams use the web to learn what supporters want to get out of their fundraising experience, understanding what their emotions and needs are, and working out what we can do as a charity to help meet those needs (what products or services we should offer). Then it’s about helping them to figure out if there’s a viable business model that generates profit from us offering these products or services.

Digital fundraising is also about changing fundraisers and the environment they operate in, and change is bloody hard! We need to help fundraisers talk about stuff that hasn’t worked in an open way (the ability to fail fast). We need to empower fundraisers to learn and not just deliver an Ops plan. We need to give fundraisers the time to understand their audience and become closer to what motivates them.

It’s about changing the way we approach fundraising so that it is more aligned with the principles of the web.

Maybe we should stop calling it digital fundraising?

We don’t call ourselves ‘Digital Fundraising’ at Cancer Research UK as we’re trying to drop the word ‘digital’ from team as well as role names because well, it doesn't really mean anything. We are the ‘Supporter Insight & Testing team’ and are responsible for helping people to:
  • know what the supporter's needs are
  • use a 'test and learn' approach
  • get access to the right data as simple as possible
  • work together better from across the charity (not just in our silos), and use everyone’s skills and experience
  • use plain language - UX, Lean, Content Strategy, Agile, Scrum Wizards…..it all gets a bit Hogwartsy so we try and steer away from it.

Our vision is to help fundraising teams use testing and insight to make decisions about what has the most value for our supporters and Cancer Research UK. 

I dream of a day when fundraising teams are getting out of the way and making themselves invisible. When we are building closer relationships between the supporter and beneficiary (bring on Blockchain!)

At Cancer Research UK we have a long way to go to achieve all of this, but the fact that we are even starting to think about fundraising in this way is a good start. And it means that we are in a great place to better react to what our supporters' needs really are.

If there is one tiny thing you do next, read this article and it will help you understand where best to start.

But this is just my opinion, please challenge me in the comments!

Rob Green

Monday, 12 February 2018

Design Sprints at Cancer Research UK

Finding new, faster and more user-centric ways of working to help us beat cancer sooner is a core purpose of our team here at Cancer Research UK. For a while now, but more intensely so in the last few months, one of the tools we’ve been using to achieve that are Design Sprints.

So what are Design Sprints, and how can you use them in your organisation?

Design sprints come from Google, where design partner Jake Knapp started running them in 2010 with teams like Chrome, Google Search and Google X. Then in 2012 he brought them to Google Ventures – an important note, as Google Ventures doesn’t just deal with software companies, but with a variety of organisations. Here is Jake’s definition of a design sprint:

“The sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. It’s a “greatest-hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavioral science, design, and more - packed into a step-by-step process that any team can use.*”

Sounds brilliant, right? But in practical terms… what does it mean?

In a nutshell: during a Design Sprint, a group of people from your organisation come together for 5 days, in a room, to try and solve a problem or answer a question. By the end of those 5 days, they will have come up with a potential solution, sketched it, built it – and what’s best, they will have tested it with real users.

Any team can try out a Design Sprint, and no challenge is too big to answer. To get started, here’s what you’ll need…

A team

Design Sprint best practice says that your team should be made up of 7 people or fewer. You can stretch this a bit, but we did find that smaller teams were more effective.

One of these people will be your Decider – someone who can move things along by making an executive decision when the group can’t. This role should be played by your problem or idea’s stakeholder. This ensures that whatever solution you end up building, they’re confidently bought into it.

Another person will be your Facilitator. This role requires a lot of energy, to keep the team motivated and on track throughout the week. If you have someone in your team who has some experience of Agile ways of working, this role might suit them well since they’ll be familiar with some of the activities that will happen in the Sprint – but it’s not essential.

As for the other team members, who you need depends partly on the problem you are trying to solve. In our Sprints, we try to always have a UXer, a ‘technical’ expert (for example, someone who knows your CMS, if you’re working on a website-based idea), someone with content and message strengths, and someone who brings a marketing/commercial point of view. At Cancer Research UK, we mostly self-organise our Sprints: it’s a brilliant opportunity to let teams organise around the work!

Remember: the strength of the Design Sprint comes from having a varied group of people working together for a short but intensive period of time. The wider the range of points of view you can bring in, the better! You might not all agree at the start of the Sprint, but you will have reached a consensus by the end of it (you will – I promise!).

Time and space

A Design Sprint takes 5 consecutive days. This may feel like a big commitment, but if you consider how much you will get done in those 5 days (and how long it might otherwise take to get there), it’s hugely productive. And after all, if your team can’t dedicate 5 days to this idea, is it really an idea you believe in?

Once you get more familiar with the structure of Design Sprint, you might find you want to shorten the process to 4 or even 3 days – but if it’s your first try, we found it better to stick to the 5 days.

You’ll also need a room, with lots of whiteboards, post-its, and sharpies. Try to use the same room each day if you can.

A challenge

What type of question can you try to answer in a Design Sprint? According to Jake Knapp, the bigger the challenge, the better the Sprint.

For example, we’ve used Design Sprints to:
  • find out the viability of a new product
  • review the roadmap of an existing one
  • kick-off a new marketing campaign
  • bring a fresh perspective on a problem when we were stuck
Design Sprints can be used for all of these questions – and more!

How do you start?

If you want to get started with doing Design Sprints, my advice would be to simply start! Many of us here at Cancer Research UK didn’t have any experience of facilitating a Design Sprint: we read the Sprint book (see footnote below), talked about it as a team, and then we just went for it. It might seem a bit daunting to dedicate a week to something you’ve never tried before, but what you will learn from designing, prototyping and testing an idea with real users in a week is so valuable, that it will be worth the initial discomfort.

And if you do decide to give Design Sprints a try, or if you already use them in your charity – we’d love to hear how you use them!

Giulia Merlo
Lead Proposition Manager

*Jake Knapp with John Zeratski & Braden Kowitz, Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, Bantam Press, 2016.

Monday, 29 January 2018

User centric digital learning and development

How we’ve made our learning content easier to find and easier to use. Without using a learning management system.

In the Talent and Development team at Cancer Research UK we want people to spend less time searching for our learning content, and more time using it to help us beat cancer sooner.

In this post we’ll share how we’ve made our learning content easier to find and easier to use, and what we’ve learned along the way.

We’d love to hear from you if you’re doing anything similar, have ideas to share, or any questions.

People search online to learn
As this great post by Kallidus points out:
  • “80% of people say Google or other search engines are vital to learn what they need to do their job”.
  • “Just 28% of people start their search for learning using their organisation’s LMS”.

What does this mean for Learning and Development (L&D) teams?
At Cancer Research UK we’ve taken 3 main lessons from this:
  1. As an L&D team, we can’t control how or when people learn.
  2. We could help people find useful stuff quickly by curating great content.
  3. When we want people to see our own content, we need to make it easy to find and easy to interact with. Otherwise people will give up or not even bother looking for it in the first place.
Our team has worked hard over the last couple of years to create and curate some great learning content for people to access. Like guides, videos, online discussion groups and workshops. So we decided to see how easy we could make it for our users to find.

Here’s how we’ve done it:

1. Joined forces with our Digital and Internal Communications teams

Internal Comms, because our learners’ ability to find and use digital learning content is part of their overall experience of using our internal digital platforms at Cancer Research UK. And Digital, to give us some guidance on how people use online content.

2. Started with our users

Our starting point was to understand how people found our content and what their experience was when they got there. We mapped this out with a lot of post it notes, and decided what we thought were the main pain points:
  1. People struggle to get to the learning content they want. They often end up landing on the wrong system. Then they get annoyed and do something else.
  2. If people do get to the right place (our main learning pages), they are confused by lots of words, fonts and colours. Plus the landing page content mainly promotes face- to-face sessions, most of which were fully booked. Not the message about self-directed learning that we want to send. So they get annoyed and do something else again.

3. Tested early with users

To validate our assumption that we should start by fixing these problems, we ran some usability testing. I’d highly recommend doing this. It involves getting users into a room and asking them to do some typical tasks on your system. We watched, took notes and gave them a score of 1-3 depending on how easily they could complete the task. An ‘X’ means they couldn’t do it at all.

Here’s how people got on:

People used these words to describe the page:

And the pages scored an overall usability score of 44.5/100. To put this in context, average is 68 and an ‘A grade’ user experience (UX) is 80.

4. Designed some new content

So we knew we needed to improve our pages. We used a digital copywriting technique, ‘KFC’ (Know, Feel, Commit). This was new to our team, and having got over the Zinger Burger cravings, we now swear by it.

First write down on post it notes everything you want your user to ‘Know, Feel and Commit to’, as a result of reading your content. Stick the post its up in a table on a flipchart.

Next, take all the post its from the ‘Know’ and ‘Commit’ columns and plot them on a Business/ User need grid.

Here’s what we put together for our new home page:

Focus: high user need and high business need
This stuff should go at the top of your page.

Guide: high user need, lower business need
This stuff should go second highest on your page.

Drive: high business need, lower user need
This stuff should go third highest on your page. You want them to read or do it, but it’s not primarily what they’re looking for.

Meh: low user & low business need
This stuff should go at the very bottom. It isn’t useful to anyone but has to be included, like terms and conditions.

5. Went where our users were

We had to work out where to host our content. To this point we’d had everything on a Sharepoint site dedicated to learning. But we decided to change to the place we knew that our users go most and feel most comfortable. To reduce the separation between 'learning' and 'work'. As David James puts it in  this post:

"It is often confused that L&D's clients are Learners, when in fact they are Workers."

We’re lucky to have a trusted intranet that’s been built with users in mind and has great search capability. It's hosted on the content management system, Drupal. So we tested what would happen if we put our new content on the intranet.

To give an idea of how much we changed things, here’s the home page that we started with:

And here's what it looks like now:

6. Usability tested again

Our hunch was that the new pages would be easier to find and more usable. We ran some more usability testing to find out. And we saw a massive improvement:

People used these words to describe the page:

And the overall usability increased to 77.9/100, well above average and not far off the UX gold standard of 80. A great improvement from a couple of weeks’ work.

7. Writing for the web

We’re now improving the rest of our pages using the KFC process and the tips that we’ve learned from our digital content team.

Before we start on content for any topic, we get hold of a list of people we know have come to a session on that topic. We ask them what they wanted to learn and why. Their answers help us structure our content by what our users want to hear, rather than by what we want to tell them.

An example from our personal resilience page:

What’s next?

We know from our testing that our pages are now easier to find and more usable. So people waste less time searching for learning content, and can spend more time doing jobs to help beat cancer sooner. Early signs are that more people are accessing the pages too. We're gathering qualitative feedback and continually improving the content.

We're also looking at learning management systems to help us recommend content and training to staff. But any new system needs to enhance the existing user journey, not replace it. It has to work for the user or there's little point in having it.

As anyone who’s read anything by Jane Hart will know, modern workplace learning is much more than making existing learning opportunities ‘digital’. We need to help people take control of their own learning, not wait for it to be arranged for them.

All of our content aims to encourage this kind of behaviour. It won’t get us there on its own, but it will help if it’s easy for our users to find and easy for them to use.

Ed Willis
Learning Designer

Thursday, 18 January 2018

How can you learn if you don’t test?

Even in my few years of working in fundraising and marketing here I’ve noticed a real shift in mind-set from the very top. We’ve stopped thinking we know everything! Instead of thinking we’re right without question, we’ve adopted an approach where our decisions are increasingly based on insights. We’re listening to our supporters more than ever and they inform the direction in which we move.

Stop being so vague and give us an example

Ok, ok. I’ll cut to the chase. I joined a Digital Spoke in 2016 to help design and develop a personal account for our supporters to use. Without going into the exact details of the product, it changed our team’s way of working beyond just this project. We worked in synergy with the Digital team and learned so much about adopting an agile approach to tasks while also gaining a huge amount of experience of different digital tools!

But I don’t want to talk to you about all of that. As exciting as it was, I think the way our team worked independently post-Spoke is the most impressive part of the project.

What’s so great then? Spit it out already!

The first thing we did was to maintain our daily stand ups which helped keep everyone focused. Each morning we huddled around a screen which showed all of the bitesize cards on our Trello board and we’d assess their progress. Reviewing this frequently really helped to keep things front of mind while also holding people accountable for completing tasks.

Both before and during our series of recruitment communications we held testing plan meetings where we could vote for which ideas we wanted to test using an effort vs. impact matrix. Where possible we’d go for what we felt were low effort, high impact tests! By holding these meetings in between each recruitment drive they also acted as an evaluation of the previous tests which was very useful context for planning.

What about when people signed up?

During the Spoke we gained a lot of experience at creating and manipulating dashboards and custom reports on Google Analytics. This allowed us to understand in real time how users were interacting with the product, what was working well and where we should be focusing our attention. Of course we sought expert advice for more difficult queries, but for the most part we were self-sufficient which was very encouraging.

Some of the trends we spotted through analytics caused us to implement real time optimisation tests. For example, when we spotted a dip in the conversion rate on the registration form we A/B tested different wording and infographics using Optimizely in an attempt to bring this up again.

How did people know what you were doing?

One of the key principles of agile working is to share progress and learnings with stakeholders and the wider organisation. Although we did this regularly with key stakeholders, we wanted to improve how we communicated to the wider organisation. It required an adjustment to how we approached the project but it definitely helped improve our skills and confidence at presenting. We’d give engaging updates every two weeks or so where anyone could show up and listen. The best thing about them was the questions we’d get asked which provoked thoughts and ideas we hadn’t previously considered.

To make this more accessible, we’d record the presentations and upload them to our Wiki page which increased our reach. This also allowed us to re-watch each one retrospectively to hone and improve our public speaking skills.

So what’s happening next?

This is a really exciting time to be working for Cancer Research UK. The direction we’re moving in as a charity is becoming inevitably more digital and we’re facing this challenge head on by devolving skills, knowledge and expertise into the product and marketing teams. This success of this Spoke is simply one example. The way we’ve carried these skills on post-Spoke and continued this way of working has really helped to take this project from strength to strength – but this is a process that is becoming more prevalent in all areas of the charity.

Graham Goodings
Digital Producer

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Writing for the Web at Cancer Research UK

A few weeks ago at Cancer Research UK we had the 200th person attend our ‘Writing for the Web’ course. After celebrating with a ticker-tape parade and a commemorative Twix, it got me reflecting on the course, and why we started running it in the first place.

We’ve written a bunch of stuff about our digital devolution model, and how we aim to make digital a core part of everyone’s job at the charity. And a key part of this is how we communicate our brand online.

So my team started a 2 hour workshop for anyone who publishes content on our website. And, because we have the skills to deliver this internally, it means we can be flexible and run the course as often as needed - without spending money on external training providers.

So what’s covered?

Write the way your users read

Most people get that print and digital content are different. We understand that reading this blog on an iPhone is a fundamentally different experience than reading an article on copywriting in a magazine. 

But, what we sometimes don’t recognise is that as readers, we have fundamentally different attitudes to how we approach content in print and digital. 

Someone much smarter than me called Jakob Nielsen did a bunch of research using eye tracking software to record how people read content online.

He found that, whereas with traditional print content we (in European languages at least) read left to right and top to bottom, in digital we tend to scan around the page in more of an ‘F’ shape.

As users we go to websites with a specific problem, and we’re scanning the page to get the ‘gist’ of how well the page we’re on will solve that problem for us.

So our content needs to make it clear to users how we’re meeting their needs at a glance. They won’t take the time to wade through irrelevant or hard to understand information to get what they’re looking for. If they aren’t convinced our content will help them they’ll just leave.

Which is why we need to make it clear how our content will benefit our users.  

Write for your users, not for you

There’s an old saying in copywriting, “features tell, but benefits sell”. The idea is that just explaining what your product or service is won’t engage your users. Instead you need to explain how it will make your users’ lives better.

This is the most important thing about writing for digital. If you can relentlessly focus on how your content is going to help your users, rather than how your content is going to help your organisation, it’s the quickest way to improve its performance.

So what does this look like?

Well, imagine for a second you’re a humble pie maker, who wants to promote a competition on your website, www.piespiespies.com. 

You might use this as your opening line:

To celebrate 10 years in business, we’re running a competition to win free pie for a year.

Here, the focus is very much on your business. It’s a statement of fact, and it’s written from the perspective of your business. It’s feature-led.

Now imagine an alternative opening line:

Win free pie for a year with our anniversary competition.

Here the focus is on what the competition will do for your user. Does your user care that your business has been around for 10 years? Probably not. Do they care about free pie? Well, who doesn’t? So this sentence is more benefit-led.

Ok, great - but why is this important?

Well, think about it in context of scan reading. If a user’s quickly skimming your page, you’ll want to draw their attention to relevant content as quickly as possible. And they’re much more likely to engage if they can see, at a glance, what’s in it for them. 

Then, once we’ve got their attention, the next thing we need to do is make sure we express ourselves in a way that’s easy to understand. Which is where Plain English comes in. 

Write the way you talk 

Back when I started my career, I used to worry about how seriously people would take my writing. I used to think that to sound credible I needed to use lots of long, complicated words. After all, that would help me come across as smart and authoritative, right?

Well, actually, the opposite was true. By loading my writing with complicated phrases I wasn’t coming across as smart. I was coming across as confusing and difficult to understand.

Sarah Richards is another person much smarter than me, and she makes the point that writing in Plain English isn’t dumbing down content, it’s opening it up. Because if we know our users scan information online, and we know they react better to clear, benefit-led sentences, then why wouldn’t we try and make our writing as clear and concise as possible? 

At Cancer Research UK, our guidance on Plain English is pretty straightforward:
  • Keep your sentences short (20 words max) 
  • Use a maximum of 3 sentences per paragraph
  • Only discuss 1 thing per paragraph (it’s easier to scan that way)
  • If you have the choice between a long word, and a short word that means the same thing, then always pick the short word
If in doubt, a good rule of thumb is ‘write the way you speak’. This doesn’t mean talking the same way you would to your friends at Friday night drinks. Instead, think about how you’d explain your content to your users over a coffee and a Twix. What words would you use? How would you speak? 

I imagine you’d be friendly, straightforward and to the point. I also imagine you wouldn’t use phrases like ‘for further information please direct any inquiries to our helpline’. I mean, you might, but you’d come across as slightly robotic if you did.

A great tool you can use to check how clear your writing is, is Hemingway App. It’s a free, online word processor, so you can type straight into your browser window. And, as you type, Hemingway grades how easy your writing is to understand and suggests improvements. The lower the score the better, and if you aim for a score between 6 and 8 you’ll find your content is doing pretty well.

Write better by writing more often

This is just a snapshot of the content training we offer at Cancer Research UK, and as far as content strategy goes it’s one piece of the wider puzzle.

Before you sit down and create your content you’ll need to make sure it answers a clear user and business need. You’ll need to make sure it has appropriate governance so it doesn’t all fall apart once it’s been published. And you’ll need to make sure you regularly test it so you know it’s still doing the job it should.

However, what this training does give teams is a solid grounding in the skills they need for writing for the web. Will they create world class digital content straight away? Well, probably not – it’s kind of hard to after a 2 hour introduction course. 

But writing something that’s a solid base is a great first step. Then based on users’ feedback you can always improve, iterate and optimise your content over time. Plus, bear in mind the only way you’ll become a better writer is by writing. And if your content is in plain, straightforward English that speaks to your users’ needs, it’ll already be better than a lot of content online. 

Chris Flood
Content Strategy Lead