The Web Project Guide Podcast: Episode 12: Write for People and Machines (w/ Sarah Winters)

It’s The Web Project Guide Podcast, and we made you a new episode.

I learned a big lesson when transitioning from the world of advertising copywriting — where words are tasked with driving a reaction, regardless of how clear that reaction might be — to the world of writing for the web: websites (and web users) depend on clarity and context.

Where ads can — and should! — be written with creativity as a central force, web content requires another subtle base layer. There shouldn’t be any codes to crack, or references to understand. Instead, writing for the web means writing for the most people at one time.

Clarity for the message, to help those who don’t understand jargon, or don’t have as advanced of a reading level, or speak English as a second language. Context for the structure, to help systems move content to the right spots, or show the right thing in the right space, or translate traditional text into assisted and accessible content.

This month, we talked to Sarah Winters — founder of Content Design London, author of Content Design, and architect of the foundation upon which GOV.UK content is built. She’s wonderful and charming, and we talk about a lot of tea — but we also touch on accessibility, the difference between content strategy and content design, and the difficulties of taking a big ship and turning it toward big change.

From our interview:


… Like you said, one person can’t just make all of that change on their own. … And I think of this specifically when I think of your work with GOV UK, which is fantastic — it’s become, along with NPR’s COPE model, one of those super case studies that everyone talks about. It gets really mentioned in every conference talk.

But there was a lot that went to that. … There was a lot of, what I assume, interpersonal, relatively political, stakeholder-focused movement to get them toward actually being able to start the content work.
What was the hardest thing or what are some of the hardest things that you had to run into or that you had to overcome to help people actually get that rolling?


So this is an interesting one. A lot of people think that we… I don’t know that it was a very glittery project and that it just worked. And every interview that I have, I need to say it was not glitter, it was swimming in treacle.

At one point … I had all my meetings at the British Museum Cafe members’ cafe because people wouldn’t shout at me in public — whereas they would shout at me if I was in offices in White Hall.
In the GOV UK model, I had top down mandate. So we had a minister saying that we could do it. We had very strong leadership. Anytime I ran into a problem, I just went to leadership and you said, “See those people, can you tell them that please?” And they would. They were absolutely supportive.

I think that there are a lot of people out there right now who think that they can do that by themselves and that if they didn’t, they’re failing. You are not failing.

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