Strategic UX writing – how to handle a website restructure

Some writing jobs can expand into UX writing (user experience) design, which may come as a surprise! Although UX is a separate expertise, companies sometimes don’t realise this, and the copywriter and web designer may have to problem-solve, and handle it between them.

Especially with a bigger company website needing a redesign, this can make the job a lot more involved than you were expecting. UX and site structure are far more than simple organisation and visual design. They’re more like information architecture, calling for a mix of user empathy, psychology, practical common sense, and logical thinking, all designed to engage users helpfully with the company.

The site structure is a reflection of the organisation’s intended customers, priorities and business goals, as well as its future direction.

Someone needs to work this structure out. It may well be you! A writer’s strategic overview, detailed thinking and language can be a huge help to managers in making vital UX decisions. So, some fundamentals in UX writing can help you to approach this confidently, and add extra value to your client services.

If it’s a bigger job where you’re part of a team, you may be lucky and have an SEO expert to draw on. If not, you may find that some SEO writing skills are expected. Find out about the different roles when writing for SEO web design teams.

Here are some steps and questions for handling this situation:

Establish the website purpose

Establish if you’re being asked to do a content refresh, or something more like a structural defrag. If a website has grown organically, its structure may be all over the place. This can be the case with a busy new company, or a long established one with a sprawling legacy site.

A website refresh is usually needed not just for technical or aesthetic reasons, but often because the company has grown or changed, and needs to realign. So the old site structure may no longer work well.

In this case, it’s best to start from scratch, and create a new UX that reflects the new priorities, and incorporates up-to-date best practice.

Gather client research

Get a clear sense of the company’s customers, services, products and future direction. This information is often found in company reports, marketing material, and press releases.

Interview senior managers for qualitative research that may not be published in documents. You may surface sensitivities and territories this way, so make sure you’re aware of company hierarchies.

Get access to Google Analytics data, for a sense of current site performance, keywords and content rankings. This benchmarking will be useful for later, once the site goes live.

Gather user and marketing surveys, and site feedback if you can.

Ask for a visual of the company organisational structure. Ask about departmental changes, mergers and strategic hires up ahead.

Research the ecosystem around the company – suppliers, competitors, geography, partnerships, dependencies, locations.

This will all help you to establish the context and focus areas for the site.

Do a content audit

Ask the web developer for an Excel spreadsheet containing all the current website pages and posts.

Use this as a basis to discuss cornerstone content, focus areas, and legacy material that can be deleted.

Establish whether the site will have a Resources section for downloads. These are best corralled in one area, rather than scattered across the site in blogs that may be hard to locate in a year’s time.

Gather a list of Resources for the new site, which may include assets such as videos, audio, infographics, PDF reports and strategic documents.

Agree the new site structure

If there isn’t a UX designer on the team, you, the client and web designer will probably do this together.

The top navigation will depend on whether you’re taking a user-first or product/services-first approach.

It may be a simple adaptation of the existing site structure, or it may be a ground-up restructure.

A frequently used visual technique is to plan layout on a whiteboard, writing write each site element on a post-it note. Then you can group the elements in different ways, and see what works best. This group work is also great for discussion, and surfacing areas that may have been overlooked.

The web designer will then create visuals of the site navigation and individual wire frames (page templates without content).

Get this signed off before proceeding to write any copy. The structure may still change, but at least you’ll have secured commitment to the fundamental outline before you forge ahead. It’s much harder to make high-level structural changes once the site build has started.

Find out the UX writing accessibility requirements

This is particularly important for public and third sector organisations, which are typically aligned to user-first best practices. You, as writer, need to meet these criteria.

For copy and content, user-first covers language issues such as plain, clear English, and signposting and structural flow. Site users may have accessibility issues, or visual or cognitive impairment. Knowing this will help you make practical decisions, and prevent content expansion beyond what’s truly effective.

Having this conversation will also help you to get a clearer sense of user groups and priorities.

Agree the call to action

Find out what action the organisation wants users to do when they visit the website. Is it ‘pick up the phone’? Is it ‘fill in a form’, ‘join the mailing list’, ‘visit the shop’, ‘download our brochure’?

This is a major element of the user navigation, so it’s good to know this early on.

Agree how to handle versions

Here’s what I do. Sharepoint is a useful tool for handling copy versions. They can quickly get out of hand, especially if department staff are feeding back on copy.

Establish a single-person point of contact with the company. They should be responsible for gathering any client-side content and funnelling it to you, so that you don’t have deal with multiple contributors.

Treat each page or post as a single Word file. Create Sharepoint folders to reflect the navigation hierarchy.

Create a Sharepoint spreadsheet of the navigation structure. Add running number IDs, to give each page a unique reference. Use colour coding to show the draft status (v1, v2 etc). Then you can quickly see where a page is stalled in the pipeline, and when it’s signed off.

Agree a strategy for UX writing page content

The amount of written content on website pages depends on what the organisation wants users to do. Too much detail can be a distraction from action, and off-putting to some customer groups.

Benchmark your content by discussing similar sites, but don’t feel obliged to emulate. The comparison site may look beautiful, but reflect outdated thinking and have technical issues behind the scenes.

Agree a tone of voice aligned to users, brand strategy and accessibility requirements.

Decide what content is really needed. For example, the site may not need lots of off-site resource links. This can actually limit engagement, by sending users down confusing rabbit holes. It’s better to have two or three authoritative links than lots of nice-to-have ones.

The web developer will appreciate it if you provide a single file for each content page, numbered and signed off by the client, with hyperlinks and metadescriptions. It’s far quicker if they can simply drop in the finished text, and don’t need to edit it in situ.

Gather a style guide

A style guide is a useful document for both you and your client. Agree style issues such as capitalisation, header case, and spelling conventions, and gather and agree in-house terminology as you go along.

I recommend the BBC news style guide as a good practice example of modern website style. It’s quick and easy to look up.

Check the staging site and help desnag

Getting editorial access to the site in progress before it goes live can be a great help to your client.

This will allow you to tweak content issues without needing to give onerous written instructions to the web developer.

You may need to proof and edit legacy content from the old site, to make sure the style and layout are consistent.

As the content and copywriter, you’re in a great position to catch snags and issues before the site goes live. I capture these in a Word document and include the hyperlink, so the developer can find it easily.

Provide aftercare

Keep an eye on the website once it’s live, and alert your client to any issues.

When the site been live for a while, ask for site performance stats and a testimonial. This will help you to get your next job!

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