Pair writing clear, accurate content for ‘How do I’

This week, the design team held a show and tell to discuss 2 questions:

  1. What is design?
  2. Why should you care?

We’ve been posting some of the examples from different areas of design that we talked about. The posts are aimed at Co-op colleagues whose expertise are in something other than a digital discipline.

Today we’re looking at how pair writing played a huge role in the success of How do I.

In November 2017 we launched How do I so that all Food store colleagues could find out how to do something in their store quickly and easily. ‘How do I’ is a website with up-to-date policies and procedures on it, written in a clear, user-focused way.

It’s all down to great collaboration

To meet colleague and business needs, the guidance on procedures needed to be:

  1. Clearly written and easy to understand.
  2. Accurate and legally compliant.

There wasn’t one set of people with the correct skills to make sure the content did both these things. We needed content designers who are skilled in writing and presenting content for the web, and we needed subject matter experts such as policy owners – in other words people who know their stuff.

Forms and surveys specialist Caroline Jarrett puts it brilliantly here:

Over 6 months we reworded, reformatted and redesigned over 500 Co-op Food store policies and procedures for our store colleagues. The technique we used, in various formats, was pair writing.

What pair writing is and how you do it

It’s as simple as it sounds. Pair writing is when a content designer and a subject matter expert bring their skills and knowledge together to write content that works for users. Working together, on the same thing, at the same time speeds up the process of getting content live because feedback is in real time.

Pair writing best practice

While working on How Do I, content designers from Co-op Digital spent hours pair writing with subject matter experts from the Food business. Here’s what we found worked best.

Our set up

Sitting together allows you to talk and listen, question and clarify without distraction. We found that although this worked well in front of one person’s computer, it worked even better if the pair could take a laptop into a quieter place because the technique often needs quite intense concentration. We found 2 hours was enough and we swapped who was writing every 30 minutes.

If you have access to Google Documents, you can work in the same document at the same time from your respective computers. If you do this, make sure only one person is typing at a time, and you’re constantly thinking out loud and discussing what’s being written so that you’re both pulling in the same direction.  

Talking in real time is what matters

Sometimes it’s not possible to get together in person but that’s ok, you can pair write from afar. The important thing is that you’re getting time together to talk and share your understanding. For How Do I, we had regular phone or video calls with depot managers across the country to create content. It’s also crucial that you remember to get something written down – it doesn’t have to be perfect and it’s never finished. You can come back later and tidy it up.

Our process

  1. We started by setting some ‘acceptance criteria’, in other words, deciding which questions we wanted the content to answer. It’s important to do this so you know when you’re happy for the content to go live. It’s so easy to find yourself in an endless loop of feedback and tweaks until it’s ‘perfect’.
  2. We agreed a sign off process. The content designer signed off on clarity, the subject matter expert signed off on accuracy.
  3. We then looked at the existing content and asked if it did the job. In most cases the information was already there but it was hard to find, hard to read and not structured in a useful way. Together we cut out the unnecessary stuff.
  4. We simplified and reworded once we had the bare bones of what we absolutely needed to include. It’s the content designer’s job to pull out tricky, unfamiliar words and replace with language that research has shown to reflect the words people use.
  5. We tackled the order we should present content in. Together we prioritised information and reformatted it. We figured out the ‘important’ stuff based on the way someone would complete the task in store, how frequently something was asked and whether there were legal compliance issues.

When both of us were happy with what we’d got down, we gave it to Digital and Food colleagues to make sure the content was usable and addressed the user needs we’d developed. Don’t leave it too long before sharing and give a deadline for feedback so colleagues don’t slow down the process. We reacted to feedback and redrafted together if we needed to.

Lengthy detail to task-based content

Image is split down the middle. Left hand side shows how information about 'restricted sales' was presented. It's very copy heavy. Right hand side shows how we present it now. Further description in the post copy.

Together we transformed a copy-heavy page of information on restricted sales into several, task-based chunks of content. Research told us that when store colleagues wanted guidance on selling a restricted item, they would naturally search for the thing that they were about to sell. We left out the unnecessary information and instead gave colleagues the exact information they needed to complete the task.

How pair writing has influenced outcomes

Pair writing has helped us redesign, reformat and reword over 500 policies and procedures for Co-op Food stores.

It’s enabled us to develop content that all colleagues (not just managers) can quickly scan to help carry out a task. They feel empowered. We’ve seen a reduction in time that colleagues spend looking for information and it’s helped to save money too. Calls to our Food store helplines went down by around 40% in some stores, contributing to a saving of over £300k per year.  

Human to human – an extra benefit

Building a relationship with a colleague in person, or at least in real time on a call, builds empathy and breaks down barriers unintentionally set in place by businesses. Subject matter experts have come to me for further writing support because they know what I look like – this is less likely to happen if you’ve only ever spoken on email. They’re also now sharing their content, helping to eliminate unnecessary duplication of work and speed up sign-off processes.

Working collaboratively

If everyone shares an understanding of the benefits of being design-led, it’ll be easier for experts from around the business to work together to deliver value to Co-op customers, colleagues and the Co-op as a business. If you didn’t make the show and tell but would like to find out more, email Katherine Wastell, Head of Design.

Matt Edwards
Content designer