Digital Services Style Guide

Write with principle

Reflect User Needs

Write to address the user; help them find the information they need quickly and easily. Ask yourself:

  • Who is the primary audience for this page?
  • What’s the point of this page?
  • What’s the most important takeaway?

Use Plain Language

Government sites are for everyone. Content should be as plain and straightforward as possible.

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Avoid government jargon or department/division jargon.
  • Use pronouns.
    • The user, or resident, is “you.”
    • “We” are City government and staff speaking to the resident.
  • Use active voice.
    • “The mayor held a community input meeting.” NOT “A community input meeting was held by the mayor.”

Use the Hemingway app or Grammarly to help you write plainly. Learn more about federal government plain language standards and content guide.

Create Smart Structure

Reading online is a very different experience than reading print. It is important to structure content so it’s easy for users to digest.

  • Put the most important information first.
  • Break text up using headers, bullets, and numbered lists.
  • Don’t use FAQs.
    • They are hard to read and search.
    • They often duplicate other content on your site.
    • Many times information is updated on the webpage, but not the FAQs, which leads to conflicting information and confusing for the resident.
    • They mean that content is not where users expect to find it—it needs to be in context.

Write with brevity

People are on their phones

“I would expect the link that I googled to take me straight to the page… This has happened to me before. I’ve gone [to this page] and said, “Where is it? Because it’s below the fold.” - An Austin Resident during usability testing

People don’t want (or have time) to navigate

Based on usability testing, we’ve heard from residents that it’s not easy to navigate a website based on a department organization because they don’t have time to browse the website or read a long description. They want to find what they need to know about a service and get on with their lives.

One resident told us:

“I don’t want to read a lot. Can I find the information easily? Oh… I have to read through all of this first.”

Avoid lengthy paragraphs or non-HTML documents like PDFs and PowerPoints. They make the users have to dig around, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, to find what they’re looking for.

The website is not a filing cabinet

And what about that one resident who wants that one PDF, you ask? Repeat after me: “The website is not a filing cabinet.”

If you have large documents that a resident might need, keep it on City servers and provide it to that specific resident if they request it.

In addition to being brief, don’t forget to archive content that is out of date or no longer relevant to our residents. This makes content easier to search, and to find, because there is less of it on the website.

Voice and tone: How you say things matters

Voice

When writing City web content, your voice should always be:

  • Conversational
  • Accessible
  • Instructive
  • Professional

Tone

Voice is constant, but tone is variable. Choose your tone based on the content and context. Your tone will be more direct and official when writing a City memo in comparison to a more enthusiastic, relaxed tone for a notice about a children’s event.