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Writing for the web

Our website is our most important communication tool. It is crucial that we tailor our content so that it works online, meets the needs of our audiences and says what we want to say in a consistent, clear and engaging way.

Find out what your users need

Content must help users complete their task. This means identifying a user need for every bit of content we produce, rather than just publishing what we think users want.

User research

If you’re writing content for a new service or improving your existing content, user research or evidence gathering should be done to:

  • find out what users need
  • test any assumptions you’ve made about your users’ needs
  • find out if what you’re proposing to provide fulfils the user needs

Research can include:

  • testing ideas, prototypes, products, or other similar products with users in a user testing session
  • feedback from user group meetings
  • looking back through enquiries made to your team, via email or from the helpdesk
  • page usage data using Google analytics or other web analytics tools
  • getting feedback from colleagues on other projects who have solved similar problems

Try to keep your user needs specific by having a defined user, such as a GP or a commissioner. User needs should always try to capture the underlying need, rather than what the user wants to do, or is made to do, now.

For example, “I need to access a webpage to find out how many prescriptions are waiting in my queue” isn’t a user need because it has already decided on a solution. The need, in this case, is to know how many prescriptions are in the queue. A webpage is just one way of solving this.

If you would like data on how your pages are being used, please speak to the web team.

Here are examples of valid user needs:

As a pharmacist

I need to check the prescriptions 

So that I can process prescriptions accurately

As an NHS employee

I need to understand the national data opt-out

So that I can find out what measures I may need to put in place 

User acceptance criteria

Once you have worked out your user needs, you can establish your acceptance criteria, which allows us to know when the user need has been answered. We use the format ‘we know this is done when…’. Here’s an example of a user need and acceptance criteria:

User need

As a nurse responsible for submitting audit data

I need to find out when the submission window for the audit opens and closes

So that I can submit our data on time

Acceptance criteria

​​​​​​We know this is done when...

the user can find out when the audit submission window opens and closes

Once your user needs and acceptance criteria have been established you can start creating your content. The acceptance criteria should inform what content you need and how it should be structured. 

If you need help with user research, please email:

Web optimisation

Most users start with a search engine, so try to use the same words and phrases as your audience. This will help them find your content. This starts with your title, summary and first paragraph. 

Find out what the public calls your content by using search tools to look up keywords. Your team or programme’s official or internal name may not be what the public calls it, regardless of how much communication you do, or have done. For example, CareCERT should be ‘Cyber security'.

Once you know the most popular keywords, you can prioritise them in the title, summary, introduction and subheadings. This is called ‘front loading’ and is part of search engine optimisation. Search engines return results based on how closely the content appears to match the person’s search term.

Do not duplicate your content

Have you checked the website to make sure the content doesn’t exist already? Duplicate content confuses users and affects search results. It also becomes difficult to maintain and keep up-to-date. If it already exists, link to it and save yourself time. If information does need to be repeated on more than one page, talk to the web team.

Designing your content

1. Keep it brief and meet the user need

Research tells us that users read quickly and scan the content of your page. If users do not find what they need quickly, they leave the page and look elsewhere. It’s in your interests to ensure users get what they’re looking for, so do not write more than you need to.

2. Structure your page

Use headings and sub-headings to structure your content and clearly identify various elements on the page. Refer to your user acceptance criteria to structure your content.

Make sure the most important information appears at the start of your content.

3. Give accessible alternatives

Images should be accompanied by a text alternative that describes exactly what is in the picture. This is particularly important if the image contains text and diagrams that can’t be read by assistive technology.

We avoid flowcharts and diagrams if they can’t be explained easily in a few lines of text.

Audio should be accompanied by a text transcription containing all spoken text, plus any other meaningful sounds.

Video should provide text transcription, subtitles or both.

4. Include understandable links

Links should be part of paragraph text wherever possible.

They should give users an idea of where they’re being sent to. ‘Click here’ or ‘see more’ isn’t a good user experience, but ‘visit the NHS Digital website’ is.

5. Avoid superfluous formatting

We do not use presentation features such as colour, bold, italics or alignment to provide information that is not explicit in the text.

6. Use informative headings

Give your page a short title (under 65 characters is ideal) and include headings and sub-headings.

Headings should be informative and users should be able to scan the headings to get an idea of what the page is about. Use your user acceptance criteria as headings.

Avoid using questions as headings. Instead of saying ‘Why is eating vegetables important?’ use something like ‘Why eating vegetables is important’ or ‘Vegetables protect the body from oxidant stress.’

7. Keep introductory text brief

This will appear in the top section, immediately under the heading. It shouldn’t be more than 3 sentences – no more than around 200 characters.

8. Include summary text

This will be picked up by search engines and will be displayed on pages where your content page is listed as a menu item. It should be a shortened version of the introductory text – no more than 160 characters.

9. Make landing pages that meet user needs

Landing pages contain top tasks, the things that your users need most urgently or most frequently. These should be a maximum of three things. You can find out what these are by analysing:

  • web data
  • helpdesk enquiries sent to your team
  • user feedback – for example, via email or face-to-face user group sessions

In addition to the heading, intro and top tasks, you should explain what your service does and why it’s important to the NHS or social care system.

It may be appropriate to put more information on the landing page. This can be discussed with the web team. We can set the Content Management System (CMS) to link to any sub-pages or relevant pages in other parts of the site.

10. Create usable sub-pages

These will vary in structure but can include lists, forms, images, data tables, information, instruction manuals or your latest news and events.

We’re trying to avoid document libraries with PDFs, Excel and Word documents. Think of content as a web page first and a document second.

11. Do not say content is 'new' 

It’s better to be transparent and show a ‘last updated’ date if you need to.

Do not promise content is ‘coming soon’. This is too vague and sets false expectations.

12. Avoid PDFs

We no longer allow new PDFs to be uploaded to the website, except in particular circumstances and only when they meet accessibility standards (PDF/A). Instead, we always try to publish information as web content (HTML).

The 3 main problems with using PDFs are:

  1. Accessibility: Most PDFs aren’t accessible to people with certain disabilities, such as those who rely on screen readers or need special colour or contrast settings on their screens.
  2. User experience: PDFs are often hard to access with mobile technology, difficult to find on computers and, once downloaded, can store out of date information.
  3. Search: Many internet users find things through Google searches - PDFs rank lower than web content in searches and sometimes do not appear at all.

There are some circumstances where PDFs are still appropriate, such as:

  • content designed for printing, for example, posters
  • where there’s a legal or regulatory requirement to have a formal, signed document

Find out more about the problems with PDFs.

13. Do not create frequently asked questions (FAQs)

We do not include FAQs sections on our website or intranet. If you write content by starting with user needs, you will not need to use FAQs.

FAQs are discouraged because they:

  • duplicate other content on the site - if a question is frequently asked, it means you need that content on the website - structure that content clearly so you do not need another page repeating the same information in a different way
  • cannot be front-loaded - front loading means putting the most important word(s) of the sentence at the beginning which makes it easier and quicker for readers to understand the content - having everything in a long list means more work for readers - questions take longer to scan and understand than simple headings and you cannot take any meaning from then in a quick glance
  • mean that content is not where people expect to find it

If you frequently get asked a particular question from your users, this means you have a user need for a new piece of content.

When it's ready

Check your content

Before you submit your content to us, please check that:

  • it meets the user need
  • it’s accessible
  • it’s written clearly and there aren’t any words or phrases that could cause confusion
  • it’s concise

Send it to us for review

Once your content is ready, send it to us at, along with your documented user needs and acceptance criteria.

We review all content before it goes live. 

After it's live

After publishing content, we keep an eye on how it’s performing. This helps us to continually improve our content. It also ensures that we do not host out-of-date content or content that is no longer being used.

It’s good practice to analyse the page analytics after a short period, normally between 2 weeks and a month. This will give you an idea of how many users are visiting the page and how long they spend on it.

Assess the impact 

Your content should have met any user needs that you’ve identified. There are several ways of understanding if you’ve achieved this:

  • a reduction in the number of enquiries asking for the information
  • feedback to the web team about your internet content
  • direct feedback from user testing and user group sessions targeted at the relevant user group

This may inform improvement of your content.

Retire content

If content is out-of-date or if there is no longer a user need, it should be withdrawn from the website.

Further information

internal A to Z of house style

The NHS Digital A to Z of house style covers style, spelling and grammar conventions for both online and offline content, arranged alphabetically.

Last edited: 4 May 2021 8:32 am