Web writing: back to basics


As one of three web content editors at Jisc, much of my time is spent editing raw content into something clear, helpful and engaging. At least I hope so!

Training our subject specialists

Jisc has a brilliant team of subject specialists who, despite their busy roles, have been working with us to update our quick guides.

The total number of guides on the site is only going to grow, so a few weeks ago we asked the lovely Christine Cawthorne from Crocstar (who has trained content producers at Government Digital Service) to give the subject specialists a brief introduction to the things they should consider when writing for the website.

Why writing for the web is different

If you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the converted. But sometimes you have to go back to basics.

It’s well-documented that people read web pages differently from print and are more likely to scan to find what they need, often reading less than 30% of a page. Helping people scan content without interruption is one of the reasons we favour sentence case over title case (we also think it makes everything feel a little less formal…)

Here are a few simple ways you can help transform your content:

  • Put the most important information first
  • Use meaningful headings
  • Write as you would speak: use plain English and cut the jargon
  • Keep sentences short and concise, wherever possible
  • Avoid long paragraphs
  • Use bulleted lists where appropriate

Even Google is a fan. They agree that writing clearly is good for search engine optimisation.

Writing for the web – for everyone

Being able to structure your content and write clearly for the web isn’t just for use in guides or features. It’s a helpful skill for anyone who wants to communicate something: writing a job advert, blogging about an event, even generating interest in that sofa you’re trying to sell on Gumtree!

One of the tools Christine shared was Hemingway Editor: great for cutting the waffle. There’s also some excellent guidance on gov.uk which dives into more detail.

Tweaking the IA

Help us improve the information architecture of jisc.ac.uk:
take our tree test

While running quite a few big projects* we’re also busy keeping the main Jisc website up to scratch.

We’ve been working with internal teams to test and revise the IA of the site, in particular how we group our products and services. We’ve run public tree tests before and found them to be fantastically useful – though they do raise lots of questions. For that reason, this time Nomensa are running facilitated sessions alongside the online test. This way we should get some qualitative insight alongside the numbers.

If you’d like to get involved then do have a go, and help us keep jisc.ac.uk as usable as possible.

* Some other bits that we’re up to:

  • Our shared pattern library and guidance for all Jisc sites
  • Migrating thousands of pieces of content from our array of websites into one place
  • Rebuilding jisc.ac.uk to provide self-serve tools, and deliver single sign-on for Jisc’s services

We will definitely, probably, eventually, get around to blogging in more detail about these. Promise.

Best seat in the house

Kirsty and Vix at mission control - the best seat in the house

Me and Vix at mission control – the best seat in the house!

Last week, myself, Vix and Rich headed to Birmingham for Digifest. Having helped out at last year’s event on the digital dream wall, talking to customers and listening to their issues and needs first hand, my role this year was much more behind the scenes but vital especially for delegates following online.

With what I reckon was the best seat in the house, dubbed ‘mission control’, I kept an eye on the action from the main hall in between uploading presentation slides from each of the sessions as soon as they had taken place. No mean feat but worth it to enable anyone attending the event or joining in online being able to access all the content almost immediately!

It was a busy but fun couple of days with time to soak up the atmosphere, meet colleagues from across the organisation and check out the exciting technologies at the ‘fab lab.’ The amazing, fully immersive Samsung Gear VR headset took me on a rollercoaster ride and diving to the bottom of the ocean which, for a landlocked sea lover, rounded the event off perfectly 🙂

Building a global experience language for Jisc


First up let me introduce myself as I’m new here. I’m Benjamin (not to be confused with Ben) and I have joined the team on secondment as user experience (UX) specialist. The main challenge in my new role is to lead on the creation of a global experience language (GEL) for Jisc – so that’s what I’m talking about.


Jisc’s web presence has grown organically, along with the organisation and in a communications audit we identified 150 websites each with a different design, navigation system and tone of voice. While individual websites are often excellent, the user experience of our web estate as a whole is fragmented, confusing and inconsistent.

We run the risk that customers are not finding the products, services and advice they need. Where users do regularly engage with services it’s sometimes unclear these are provided by Jisc, and how complementary services in the same area can be accessed.

Customer and user experience consultants cxpartners were commissioned to conduct an independent assessment of the Jisc web estate and advise on how best to bring clarity and consistency to our digital offer. Core to their assessment were the principals that the default home for all our customer facing content should be jisc.ac.uk, however exceptions would be made where it is clear that the long-term user experience will be significantly diminished by bringing content or services onto the Jisc website. This led to the need to create two flavours of ‘In’ – full integration and service mode

In their own words:

“The content and functions of service mode sites are aimed at Jisc’s core audiences and so should be firmly brought ‘In’, however there is recognition of the complex UIs [user interfaces] and standalone nature of these services. Service mode sites should be made to feel consistent with other Jisc services using modules from a flexible global experience language.

A centrally managed and designed GEL will not only improve the user experience by creating consistency across the web estate but also save time, money and duplication of effort where individual teams are creating separate UIs for each of their sites and services.”

What do we mean by a global experience language?

Search for global experience language on the web and you’ll find the BBC’s GEL. I’m not sure if they coined the term, but their version is certainly the most visible and well developed example – and it’s an example that we can draw many parallels with.

The BBC have had to tackle a sprawling web estate that has grown in an organic way, that has been developed by geographically separated and structurally segmented teams. The BBC describe their GEL as “the glue that ties all BBC services together”, and that is something that we’re very much striving to achieve.

Defining the Jisc global experience language

At it’s essence the GEL will be a pattern library and style guide that will bring consistency to our digital output. But more than that, we want it to express the rationale behind these elements and how they can be combined to best effect. It’s about interaction, feeling and behaviour – a toolkit for everyone involved in building digital products for Jisc.

As Heidi Lightfoot says in her recent article Let’s Ditch the Brand Guidelines:

“We now judge the success of a brand not by its ability to manage its brand mark but in its ability to be recognised without its mark. Success comes in capturing the essence and spirit of a brand; which requires a broader range of assets delivered by ‘style guides’ rather than ‘guidelines’.”

And this is something we believe a GEL can help us achieve. And we also believe that this is something user experience design can help us achieve. Wikipedia defines user experience design as:

“The process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product.”

Through the GEL we want to make the experience of Jisc’s web estate clear, simple and fast. Where individual services become familiar, easy to use and consistent, helping the user understand our portfolio of services and the value of Jisc’s offer.

One of our key objectives is to where possible enhance the user experience of sites as they’re brought inline with the GEL. With only a small dedicated UX team we’re under no illusions that this is going to be a challenge, but as Leisa Reichelt says “there is no UX, there is only UX”. As an internal customer service team we’re UX evangelists, where we engage with other teams across the business we try to influence and educate in the practices of user experience design. As Lisa suggests in her post, just because some of us have UX in our job titles, doesn’t mean that we are the only ones that have to worry about it, its the responsibility of the whole business.

With the GEL we have an opportunity to showcase and surface the tools, techniques, resources that we use on a regular basis to the business as a whole. Our hope is to empower individual teams, to get them to start exploring and experimenting with these techniques, to start thinking of themselves as UX-ers, to start to build a UX culture across the business.

We know this is a tough challenge, and this is a long road, but all roads start somewhere and this is where ours begins.

New web project manager – the ‘hello’ post

It’s always hard to know precisely what to put in a first blog post, so I’ll take the easy route and go with “hello”, my position in my new team, what I’ll be doing and how I work.

Web team PM

I have joined Jisc as a Project Manager in the Web team – “a relatively straightforward brief” I thought – but I have since learned… The challenges will be varied, exciting and rewarding, as the nature of the project portfolio is diverse.

The projects

To kick off, I have a few projects to get stuck into:

R&D section of jisc.ac.uk: Nathalie wrote about this in her 18th September blog post, and it is one which lots of people within Jisc are aware of. This new part of the website will house the information about the great projects, which Jisc helps to germinate and fund, that drive web technology development in the Higher Education and Further Education sectors. There has been lots of best practice deployed in this project which will certainly feature as the basis for another blog post.

Moving maintenance of Jisc’s website in-house: Jisc provides excellent web services to a huge number of institutions, but at the moment isn’t using this expertise to manage its own web presence. This project will change that, making the Jisc website a fantastic advert for what Jisc’s web services can do.

The big one… I will also be involved in the Unified Web Presence (UWP) project, in which we are looking to bring a common look, feel, navigation and editorial voice to all of Jisc’s vast web presence – it almost sounds easy when you put it that way…

How Jisc Web Projects link up

All projects working in harmony? Easy Peasy…


My approach

I have used both Prince II and Agile project management techniques and like to, where possible, combine the best bits of both. To me, this means using the up-front control and general structure provided by Prince II, and the dynamism and quick results generated by Agile. Whatever the methodology, I believe it’s crucial to capture and share lessons learned from any project – and I am sure there will be plenty of Lessons Learned posts to come.

So that’s a quick romp through who I am, what I’m doing and how I work. I’m always keen to collaborate and learn new things so don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Sharing the love (and our office)

Our friends at customer experience consultancy cxpartners have shared their experiences of collaborating with us on the project to redevelop the R&D section of the Jisc website.

We invited the team to come and work in our offices during key stages of design development. This meant that, rather than communicating through long – and sometimes slow – email exchanges, they could just swing by our desks and run their ideas past us in person.


What’s more, as the development of the R&D section is of interest to so many colleagues outside of the web team, it was lovely to have an open door so people could pop in and have a nose at what we were up to.

Read Neil Schwarz‘s blog post in full on the cxpartners website: How a goldfish bowl and a biscuit tin helped us collaborate. He’s keen to hear inspired collaboration ideas from others.

Same seat, different role

Vix with GromitOh hai!! I’m Vix, the latest addition to the Jisc web team.

Some of you might know me, I’ve been knocking around Jisc for a couple of years now, working in the press team and covering our internal comms work.

Like Kirsty, (who beat me to it on the blog a few weeks ago) I’m joining the team on secondment for 12 months to help out with the unified web presence (UWP) project.

Although we’re yet to get stuck in to UWP from the content side of things, I’ve really enjoyed my time in the team so far, learning more about Photoshop, doing a bit of coding and rewriting copy for the site. All good practice for what’s to come, which will involve all of these skills but on a much larger scale.

Although I haven’t physically moved (I’m in my same spot next to Nathalie at One Castlepark), I’ve had to change the way I work, and mostly, the way I look at the website.

In the press team I’ve had a fair bit of dealing with the site, writing and uploading press releases and blogs. Now I’m on the other side of things, I’m much more aware of the way in which we present our content, making sure that it not only looks great but that it makes sense too.

I’m genuinely excited about the UWP project and helping form a better picture to our customers (and everyone else!) of what we do. I’m sure I’m not the only one who started at Jisc not really knowing what we do and although I know now (I think!), I’m looking forward to working on further connecting the dots of the exciting and varied work that Jisc does.

When I’m not geeking about at work, I’m geeking about at home, riding around on my other half’s motorbike, baking brownies and trying to get my Rubik’s cube time to under two minutes…

Bristol newbie

Kirsty at Digifest 14

Hi, I’m Kirsty and I have recently joined the team as web content editor on a secondment basis. I will be with Jisc for a year working alongside Ben, Rich, Nathalie and Vix on the unified web presence project.

I’m based in Wolverhampton but you can come and find me at Castlepark on Thursdays. I’m looking forward to meeting as many people as I can over the next 12 months, and as a newbie to Bristol, I hope to get lots of tips from the Bristolians about the sights to see during my lunch break, and of course, the best places to eat 🙂

Before joining the web team, I worked for the Jisc Regional Support Centres (RSCs) as Information Officer. I have also worked for a motor yacht manufacturer, the University of Wolverhampton, a conference and wedding venue and an Internet service provider. My background is predominantly copywriting, marketing and communications with the web featuring heavily in each of my job roles since graduating from university.

During my time with the RSC’s, I got involved in a project to unify their disparate web estate. It was an exciting and challenging project and something that I’m proud to have been involved with, particularly having seen the project through from the start, and continuing to look after the unified site on a daily basis. I love taking content and organising it into a more user friendly format – something that speaks to the user in plain English and gets the message across clearly and concisely.

The Jisc unified web presence project is something I’m hugely excited about. It will give me the chance to create and organise content on a much bigger scale and bring some cohesion across the Jisc web estate. I’m looking forward to learning new skills, meeting new people and utilising and building on my experience of the RSC web project.

I’m a self-confessed web geek, social media advocate, blogger and obsessive surfer, despite the perceived geographical barrier. When I’m not in the Atlantic catching waves, I’m writing about surfing, either on my personal blog or for surf websites such as The Surfing Sumo.

So, next time you are at Castlepark, please stop by, say hi, and share some of your top Bristol tips – must do things to see and places to eat during the next 12 months.

I look forward to meeting you 🙂

Content strategy in Higher Education


Last week was IWMW and David Cornforth and I presented a workshop session on content strategy (resources and slides here). We asked attendees to write up their content problems on post-its and stick them on the ‘issues wall’. We filled it.

The positives – we all get that content is important, critical. Otherwise our session wouldn’t have been full. But all those issues? Also, oddly, positive. We recognise where things aren’t working. The biggest problem? Getting everyone else to see it too.


An earlier session on governance was full of talk of beleaguered editorial staff hoping for a silver bullet. Surely someone has a cast iron governance document that has somehow stopped the random requests to “just add this to the web”. The new content, pages or even sites insisted upon without considering the integrity of the rest of the site. Ignoring user testing or good practice for the sake of just getting it done.

The consensus seemed to be it wasn’t out there. That a governance document signed off at the highest level may stand for a short while. That editors out in the faculties may do the right thing for the first few weeks after their training. But that lasts until someone higher up or with a louder voice has an idea.

The truth is even with the paperwork we’re still constantly having to cajole, prod, persuade and sometimes outright argue, and partly this is down to the area in which we work.

Don’t worry – you can just put that live

There is a wonderful quote from the GDS Government Service Design Manual

“You can add up, but it doesn’t mean you’re an accountant. You can write, but it doesn’t mean you’re a content designer.”

Unfortunately – not everyone believes it.

We have expertise that sometimes feel transparent. When we look at content we’re trying to juggle user need, organisational need, brand, tone, style and strategy. We don’t just look at a page, we’re considering the user journey, the context of the user, the integrity of the rest of the site, all while trying to identify and solve the problem the content is trying to answer.

Listening to how heartfelt the issues were in our session we don’t just see the importance of the user experience – we feel it.

Later Richard Prowse said something that chimed with comments from our session. That when content people get together it almost feels like a therapy session. A common refrain from participants was it felt so good to know it wasn’t just them – that other people were struggling with the same problems.

Change is possible and coming

It’s not great that Higher Education, with all the challenges it’s facing, still seems to have a problem with trusting their experts to do the right thing. That, in one example, a VC can ring up a web manager and insist a link be added to the homepage based on a passing remark from a friend.

That is the situation – but it will change. Outside the sector it’s already changing. Private finance put huge weight behind their content strategy (but when each of your users is worth a few million pounds it’s perhaps easier to remain focused). And when government can do it – despite the characterisation of being sclerotic, risk averse, sprawling, fragmented and ego filled – there has to be hope for universities.

HE will get there eventually. They’ll have to.

One quote from Paul Boag’s talk which should have terrified everyone in the room (he has a gift for those) was the digital experience you create isn’t competing with that of your peers. That students have come to expect services such as those from Facebook and Google for free. If their £9k experience isn’t close there’s a problem.

And traditional reputation will only get you so far. We heard of a large top 10 university talking of how they expect online and distance learning to become an important part of their future. They also admitted that their brand has much less of a draw online, and that differentiation will come from user experience.

Content is a key part of this.

Making a change

So we have an idea how to make content work – but keep hitting barriers. We can keep talking about what the user wants, but the feedback from the conference was that doesn’t cut it with the people we need to listen.

We can try putting the user in front of them. Through data, through evidence, and perhaps it will eventually sink in.

I still think getting your senior staff to sit in on user testing would be hugely helpful. It’s hard to keep arguing when you’re watching a user struggle with your site, completely ignore your prize content, or describe their suggestions for navigation as meaningless.

What if you can’t get the VC in on the testing? We can (and should) change our emphasis.
For those who respect it – we need to start bringing data. Data of what’s wrong, data of what’s working.

And for everyone else?

From Ross Ferguson and Paul Boag we heard that we need to start using language managers understand, risk and cost.

I also think we need to start talking problems. We keep hoping people will start to bring us problems rather than solutions, but they don’t. By the time someone has come to us with one of those solutions they’ve probably moved on to worrying about the next thing. The people coming to us are probably weighed down by a mountain of problems. If we can get to them first – book in time to see what’s coming and how we can help – perhaps they’ll be more receptive to working with us.

And where that doesn’t work? While the importance of the user and creating a coherent experience for them is still a nice to have? Perhaps we should take Richard Prowse’s advice. Relax a little. We see every time we’re overruled as a failure. It’s not a coincidence one participant said talking to other content strategists was a bit like going to AA.

We should keep up the good fight, but have the wisdom to know what we can’t change. Yet.