Content principles

Our content principles

  1. We meet user needs
  2. We don’t duplicate content
  3. We don’t publish anything that’s already being done better elsewhere
  4. We write in plain English, in the active voice, and follow the Barnardo's brand, tone and style guidelines
  5. We check everything before we publish it
  6. We update or retire content that’s out of date
  7. We use data and evidence to support content decisions

User needs

Most people visit because they need something.

Everything published on should meet a user need.

Before we can meet their need, we must understand it.

How to identify user needs

You can find out what users need from your website through:

Note: we’re talking about user needs, not organisational needs

User stories

User stories express user wants or needs. To create content for Barnardo’s, always start with the user story.

Use this format:


Acceptance criteria: ‘done when’

Develop the user need further by listing all the things that the user would need to know or do to achieve their aim. These are sometimes called ‘acceptance criteria’.

The list of acceptance criteria shows you what content you need to develop to meet the user need.

For example, look at this user story:

Acceptance criteria might include:

Tips for writing user stories

Don’t suggest solutions or justify existing services or content.

Here’s an example of a user story that justifies existing content:

Define the user

Sometimes the audience is specific (a young carer, a commissioner in a local authority, a foster parent). Sometimes it’s broad (a donor). Some user needs will have lots of potential audiences – you don’t have to write a different user story for each, but you should define the audience as well as you can.

Make it task-based and active

The ‘I need to...X’ should be something that helps the user fulfil a task.

Active needs include:

If the need is to ‘know’ or ‘understand’ or ‘find out about’ something, make sure that the ‘so I can...’ is to fulfil a task.

Good example

Bad example

Do the research: data and evidence

We do research to define and check user needs, and to find out people’s ‘mental model’ for that need – how they think about it and the language they use to describe it.

What kind of research we do, and how much of it, depends on the scale of the content project.

Direct user research and testing

Tools include:

Indirect research

Tools include:


Sometimes, we have set analytics to help us answer specific questions. But we can always find out:

Other sources of information

How we structure content

  1. Consider user journeys
  2. Put the most important information first
  3. Make it easy to scan
  4. Use content patterns

Consider user journeys

Consider the user in the structure of the page: how do people move through your content? Where do they need to go next?


If the data tells you that lots of people search for ‘barnardos jobs’, add a subheading that says ‘Jobs at Barnardo’s’.

If you can see that lots of users go from your page to page x, offer a clear link to page x.

Put the most important information first

Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ model. Start with the content that is most important to your audience, and then provide additional details. ‘Front-load’ copy (especially headings, links, bullets and captions) – put the most important information first.


Good: Special educational needs: independent supporters

Bad: Independent Support Services - Special Educational Needs (SEN)

Make it easy to scan

People don’t read content online – they scan it. That means they don’t read top to bottom, or even from word to word. They will scan in an F-shape, looking for something relevant to grab their attention. So, we structure content to help people scan.

Think about the structure of content from the point of view of someone who’s scanning it quickly. They are checking to see if this is the right page for them. What are the signposts they are likely to see?

The most attention-grabbing structural elements are:

Use content design patterns

We use consistent patterns for some elements on our site – the same words and structure. That means that they always look the same, wherever people come across them on our site.

The language we use

We write so everyone can understand us

We have an obligation to make our content accessible to everyone who needs it.

Plain English

Everything we publish must be written in plain English. Plain English is a style of writing and presenting information that helps the reader to understand it the first time they read it.

To do this, we:

Research shows that everyone prefers plain English, no matter their level of education or reading ability.

Read this post and linked research about plain English on the Government Digital Service blog.

Use the words your users use

We always use the same language as our users when we write for Barnardo’s.

Otherwise, people can’t find our content when they search for. And if they do find it, they might not understand it or trust it.

We do the research to find the right words before we start writing.

Check content is easy to use and understand

We use ‘readability’ tests as one measure of how easy it is to understand our content.

‘Readability’ tests check written content to predict what level of ‘reading age’ (level of educational reading ability) someone will need to understand our content.

We do this in:

As a rule of thumb, aim for a reading age of about 9. (Read why we aim for 9.) For technical, medical and professional content, aim for 12.


People don’t understand jargon. It’s often vague and risks misinterpretation. People don’t trust it.

It’s easy for jargon to sneak into copy, particularly if you know your subject well.

Look out for:

Technical terms

Technical terms are not jargon. It’s fine to use them where necessary – just explain what they mean the first time you use them.

Writing for specialists

Plain English is for everyone.

A common argument is that if you’re writing for a specialist audience, you don’t need to use plain English. But plain English is better for everyone.

Writing in plain English and legal or medical writing have the same goal. This is to communicate complex ideas in a way that is easy to understand and act on.

A case study to quote

Research shows 80% of lawyers prefer plain English. For example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the more traditional Latin phrase ‘inter alia’.

The more complex the issue, the greater that preference. More highly educated lawyers have a stronger preference for plain English (and there is a correlation – the higher the education, the greater the preference).

Lawyers with more specialised knowledge have a stronger preference for clear English (and there is the same correlation).

One theory is that more highly educated people with more specialist knowledge have more to read and less time to do so.

Be bold!

One reason people write legalese, or make their writing complicated, is because ‘this is the way it’s always been done’. We feel pressure to conform to a style that it makes us sound authoritative, or ‘normal’, or right. We’re concerned we’re ‘dumbing down’, instead of opening what we write to a wider audience. It takes courage, as well as practice, to bring clarity to what we write.

Before we publish

Checks for style

We must check every piece of content we publish on


Check that the content:

Titles should be:

Body text should:

Checks for factual accuracy

Subject matter experts check for factual accuracy. They don’t need to waste their time and expertise correcting basic errors or rewriting for style – our other checks will catch those.



After we publish

We check and iterate content.

All content we publish has a review date. At that date, we check it to see if: