Test your content because subject experts do not think like users

Jack Garfinkel
Aug 6 · 4 min read

We need subject experts to write content. Most work for Scope. Others are freelancers. Almost all give advice and support to disabled people and their families.

Writing things that are clear and correct is hard to do. It’s almost impossible to do on your own. Caroline Jarret said that if you know enough to say it’s correct, you know too much to say it’s clear. And I think she’s right.

How we write

We create content by pair writing with subject experts. We both sit down with a job story in front of us and the content designer asks open questions. At the end of the session we have some rough notes that the subject expert agrees are true.

The content designer refines the notes into a draft piece. We run feedback workshops called ‘crits’. Subject experts go to these, and their feedback focuses on fact checking. User researchers are there too. They focus on the user needs and if we’re meeting them.

Experts understand large, complex systems.

Experts are used to working with clients to solve problems. They want to be helpful. Often that means:

We want to write content that’s useful. Subject experts want that too, but for them that also means including a lot of detail. They like to include everything that is ‘relevant’ to a subject. We don’t. We try to solve a defined problem for a specific context.

Two people at a Scope Parents Connect event

Solve specific problems

Job stories are a way of describing what someone needs in a situation. Acceptance criteria are a checklist to see if the content is ‘done’. Together, they help you to work out:

  • what should be included and what should be cut
  • how you should present what you include — what headings and other labels you should use, and in what order

They’re the tool that will help you and your subject expert work to solve the same defined problem, rather than cover lots of contingencies.

For example, when my child needs an educational psychology assessment:

  • I want to know what to do if the school says they do not have budget for this / does not support me in the process
  • So that my child gets assessed in order to get their education, health and care (EHC) plan
  • As a parent of a disabled child

Listen to experts, but be careful

When you start something new, you’re the most ignorant you’ll ever be. This can feel scary. The subject expert will offer certainty. Taking on their perspective can feel safe. You should listen to them, but you need to look at things differently.

Your expert’s point of view will almost always be different to the person you are writing for. And you must meet the reader where they are, the way they think about things now. You must start there, even if you need to take them somewhere new to solve their problem. This happens a lot when what the reader wants isn’t the same as what they need.

This is easy to commit to but it’s hard to do.

Testing content with users is your safety net

We wrote and tested a piece of content for the user story above.

Our expert told us that:

  • It’s best to get the support of the school before trying to get an education, health and care (EHC) assessment.
  • The school would then often organise an assessment by an educational psychologist as part of applying for an EHC assessment.
  • As a last resort, parents can apply directly to their local authority for an EHC assessment without a report from an educational psychologist.

During testing, parents told us that the first draft was patronising because it talked about how things were meant to work, not how they worked for them. It was the ‘happy path’. It reflected the view of someone working inside the system.

The first draft also included quite a lot of information on how to get the school to support you to apply for an EHC assessment. But we were writing for people who could not get their school to support them.

What we changed

We turned the piece upside down. Now, it starts with how to apply for an EHC assessment and some common reasons why parents do this. The next section covers when children have the right to be assessed by the local authority.

The information on the happy path was still there, but under the heading “how the system should work”, towards the bottom of the piece.

The piece is ‘done’ but it’s not finished

I knew what we should be doing when we started writing this piece. A senior editor and user researcher reviewed it during the ‘crit’ (feedback workshop). We were confident that our processes and rituals were rigorous. But we still need to get better at separating the voice of the subject expert from the advice that they give. It was only testing that showed us where we were going wrong.

We’ll be looking closely at the ratings, traffic and qualitative feedback for the published page. We’ll keep looking for ways to improve the piece, to support the parents of disabled children. This was the second version, but it won’t be the last one.

Content at Scope

We’re Scope, the disability equality charity. We won’t stop until we achieve a society where all disabled people enjoy equality and fairness.

Jack Garfinkel

Written by

Senior Content Designer for the charity Scope. We make content for disabled people and their families.

Content at Scope

We’re Scope, the disability equality charity. We won’t stop until we achieve a society where all disabled people enjoy equality and fairness.

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