As an author for Mass.gov, you’ll face some challenges — which of the new page types is right for your content, for example, or figuring out what your services are and how to organize them. But the most important questions are the ones that writers have been trying to answer since before the advent of the printing press.
People naturally adjust the way they speak to match their audience. For example, you wouldn’t speak to a lifelong friend the way you would to someone you’re in line next to at the supermarket. The same is true for your Mass.gov audience. You’ll need to estimate how much they know and how you should address them.
Hopefully, you can be pretty specific about who these readers are: parents, business owners, government employees, or fishing enthusiasts, for example. You might even need to split a service several ways to address different audiences. For example, The Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA) has broken their Workers’ Compensation subject into four, each customized to a different intended audience: workers, employers, attorneys, and insurers.
As you can see, this isn’t just a matter of changing the title: DIA has also crafted subtitles — the short description field — to reflect each audience’s perspective. The subtitle for the workers-facing page begins with a question relevant to workers: “Were you hurt at work?” The subtitle for insurers includes jargon that industry experts will know, such as “batch claims.” And the employers-facing page presumes that its audience is looking for information, as opposed to filing a claim.
An equally important question is what your audience thinks they should find when they land on a page. Sometimes, the answer’s obvious: They want to apply for something or complete a transaction. A content author’s goal then is to clearly state what the user can do on the page. The Registry of Vital Records' (RVRS) service page on Ordering a Birth, Marriage, or Death Certificate is a good example:
The RVRS anticipates that its audience will come to this page believing they should be able to request information. RVRS makes it clear from the title, subtitle, and overview, that that’s exactly what users will be able to do. The text is not loaded with extra information, and RVRS uses clear, direct language.
Sometimes, your audience won’t know what to expect from a certain page or service because public awareness about that subject is low. In that case, you’ll have to keep things simple, while educating and informing at the same time. It’s good to avoid jargon and arcane acronyms, and if you have to teach readers a new term, make sure you clearly define what it means and why it matters to them. For example, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) begins its Net Metering service page by explaining what net metering is and why it matters to users:
The page strikes a balance between informing readers what they can do on the page and not overwhelming them with details, technical or otherwise. There’s enough to lead the reader to the more detailed how-to and service detail pages if they need to find them.
Finally, as important as it is to manage information, you also have to think about how you speak to your readers. The Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) demonstrates this well on their Resources for Family and Friends of Inmates Service Page.
The page includes phrases like “stay connected” and “loved one,” which reflect that the author was thinking about how the audience for this service sees its relationship to prisoners. Even a phrase like “through this time,” which might be cut without affecting meaning, acknowledges that for friends and family, incarceration is difficult and challenging.
Once you know who your users are and what they’re looking for, you can answer the ultimate question about audience: What experience do you want users to have when they come to your pages? You’ll be able to lay out your content to match what you anticipate will work for your audience. Getting comfortable with the CMS is important, which is why we’ve produced this knowledge base to help you. However, understanding your audience is a separate and more elemental question. It’s about social, and not technical, knowledge: How can you be clear, helpful, and empathetic to those who encounter your content?