Nov 28 2018
Nov 28

Variety of content and the need for empathy drive our effort to simplify language across Mass.gov

Nearly 7 million people live in Massachusetts, and millions more visit the state each year. These people come from different backgrounds and interact with the Commonwealth for various reasons.

Graphic showing more than 3 million visitors go to Mass.gov each month.

We need to write for everyone while empathizing with each individual. That’s why we write at a 6th grade reading level. Let’s dig into the reasons why.

Education isn’t the main factor

The Commonwealth has a high literacy rate and a world-renowned education network. From elementary school to college and beyond, you can get a great education here.

We’re proud of our education environment, but it doesn’t affect our readability standards. Navigating the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program might be challenging for everyone.

Complexity demands simplicity

People searching for nutrition services are doing so out of necessity. They’re probably frustrated, worried, and scared. That affects how people read and retain information.

Learn about our content strategy. Read the 2017 content team review.

This is the case for many other scenarios. Government services can be complicated to navigate. Our job is to simplify language. We get rid of the white noise and focus on essential details.

Time is not on our side

You don’t browse Mass.gov in your free time. It’s a resource you use when you have to. Think of it as a speedboat, not a cruise ship. They’ll both get you across the water, just at different speeds.

Graphic showing desktop visitors to Mass.gov look at more pages and have longer sessions than mobile and tablet visitors.

Mass.gov visitors on mobile devices spend less time on the site and read fewer pages. The 44% share of mobile and tablet traffic will only increase over time. These visitors need information boiled down to essential details. Simplifying language is key here.

Exception to the rule

A 6th-grade reading level doesn’t work all the time. We noticed this when we conducted power-user testing. Lawyers, accountants, and other groups who frequently use Mass.gov were involved in the tests.

These groups want jargon and industry language. It taught us that readability is relative.

Where we are today

We use the Flesch-Kincaid model to determine reading level in our dashboards. It accounts for factors like sentence length and the number of syllables in words.

This is a good foundation to ensure we consistently hit the mark. However, time is the most important tool we have. The more content we write, the better we’ll get.

Writing is a skill refined over time, and adjusting writing styles isn’t simple. Even so, we’re making progress. In fact, this post is written at a 6th grade reading level.

Oct 09 2018
Oct 09

A straightforward mission doesn’t always mean there’s a simple path. When we kicked off the Mass.gov redesign, we knew what we wanted to create: A site where users could find what they needed without having to know which agency or bureaucratic process to navigate. At DrupalCon Baltimore in 2017, we shared our experience with the first nine months of the project building a pilot website with Drupal 8, getting our feet wet with human-centered (AKA “constituent-centric”) design, and beginning to transform the Mass.gov into a data-driven product.

Oct 09 2018
Oct 09

Structured content is central to the content strategy for our new Drupal-based Mass.gov. So is the idea of a platform-agnostic design that can be reused across our diverse ecosystem of web applications, to encourage a consistent look, feel, and user experience. We’re not the only ones with these priorities for our new digital platform. So we can’t be the only ones wrestling with the unsolved authoring experience implications either. This blog post is an attempt to articulate the basic problem and share our best, latest idea for one possible solution. As the saying goes, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ We want to go far. If you like our idea, or if you have other possible solutions or insights, please share them with us in comments below, or by tweeting at us @massgov, or contact me at @bryanhirsch. Let’s go together.

Problems:

Drupal has made major strides toward improving the content authoring experience in recent years: Acquia’s Spark project in Drupal 7, Quick Edit in Drupal 8, and Edward Faulkner’s integrations with Ember. But (1) our vendors for Mass.gov have unanimously dissuaded us from leveraging these innovations in our new authoring experience because with complex data models it’s costly and highly customized to make in-place editing through the front end work. (2) This challenge is compounded by the desire to keep our design portable across diverse web properties, which means we want to keep Drupal’s Quick Edit markup out of our Pattern Lab-based component library. Additionally, (3) if we get structured content right, our Mass.gov content will be reused in applications we don’t control (like Google’s knowledge graph) and in an increasing number of government website via APIs. It’s both cost prohibitive and practically impossible to create frontend authoring UIs for each of these applications. That said, if we move authoring away from the front end in-place editing experience, (4) authors still need detailed context to visualize how different pieces of content will be used to write good content.

Here’s one possible solution we’re interested to explore that seems like it should address the four issues outlined above: Move high-fidelity live previews to the backend authoring experience, displayed alongside the content editing form as visualized in the designs below.

Visual design of possible UI for live preview of different components from the Pattern Lab-based Mayflower component library, incorporated into the backend Mass.gov authoring experience. View additional designs here.

By showing authors examples of how different pieces of content might be used and reused, we can give writers enough context to write meaningful structured content. But maybe we only need to give authors enough examples to have reasonable interactions with all the different content form fields. If this works, then we don’t have to try and keep up with an infinitely growing and changing landscape of possible new frontends. Pattern Kit (here) and Netlify CMS (here) both offer working, open-source, examples of how this authoring experience could work.

Mass.gov is not a “decoupled Drupal” ecosystem yet. Our API strategy is in its infancy. We know other people with much more experience are thinking about the same issues. Maybe some are even writing code and actively working to develop solutions. If this is you, we’d love to hear from you, to know how you’re approaching these problems, and to learn from anything you’ve tried here.

About Drupal Sun

Drupal Sun is an Evolving Web project. It allows you to:

  • Do full-text search on all the articles in Drupal Planet (thanks to Apache Solr)
  • Facet based on tags, author, or feed
  • Flip through articles quickly (with j/k or arrow keys) to find what you're interested in
  • View the entire article text inline, or in the context of the site where it was created

See the blog post at Evolving Web

Evolving Web