How pair writing can change everything for the better

Read how Croydon Council is using pair writing in its content design practice, to improve digital services for residents.

At the Croydon Digital Service, we’ve started using pair writing to improve digital services for Croydon residents.

Pair writing is when content designers (like me) write content with our service experts sitting right there beside us. They make sure what we write is factually correct, while we decipher and simplify their input to make it easier for users to understand. It’s a superb way to tackle complex content.

Most recently, I worked on the ‘Apply for a resident parking permit’ service.

The page originally included a lot of legal terminology that seemed unnecessary for a user. To help me understand this content I arranged a pair writing session with Isschara Maxime, a performance officer for the Parking Services Division.

You can see below an example of the things that we changed.

This was the old version of an alert, that is shown near the top of the page (before the user gets to anything about how to apply for a permit):

A large box of text that says: Residents of blocks of flats with Section 106 agreement (or other such planning restriction) that specifies within a clause the restriction of the issue of permits, will NOT be eligible to receive residents permits.  For your information a resident parking permit does NOT GUARANTEE THE AVAILABILITY OF A PARKING SPACE; in some areas you may not be able to park on your road due to parking congestion, however the permit gives the option of parking within a valid bay anywhere within the permitted zone.  In addition there are other options for those residents that cannot obtain a residents permit:  - Garages for rent within the borough run by the Housing Dept - Council car park permits or All zone permits.  Due to increased demand for parking within Croydon, the Council is constantly reviewing permit allocations for the whole of the Borough.

And this is the new version:

A callout box on the Croydon Council website: Some applications for resident parking permits will not be accepted due to planning restrictions. In some areas you may not be able to park on your road due to parking congestion. However, the permit does give the option to park within a valid space anywhere within the permitted zone

Hopefully you’ll agree that the new version is a lot quicker and easier to understand because it sticks to what the user needs to know.

It can be understood quickly and easily, preventing the user from becoming daunted by the task before they’ve even started.

Working with Isschara was a good learning experience for us both. Her expertise in parking services was clear as she explained details about the service in a way that I could capture in conversational language. She also had a particularly good understanding of her users’ concerns, so we knew what needed to stay on the page.

During the session I explained some of the approaches to content design and emphasised how we should always ask ourselves, “Is this what a user needs to know?” or “Will this help the user in their journey to apply for a permit?” This is something that Isschara embraced throughout the session.

During our conversation we decided what to remove or amend on the webpage. She gained a good understanding of why the content needed to be improved and why removing content doesn’t have to affect the factual accuracy of a page. It became an education for me too as I now have a better understanding of her users’ concerns and the rules around parking regulations.

Pair writing works because the service expert has deep knowledge of their subject area, while the content designer acts as a check to stop information overload. We’ll keep on using it as we work to improve the council’s website.

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