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Using content types to transform the NHS website

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Using content types to transform the NHS website

Things have changed a lot since the NHS website first launched in 2007. The way we consume content has changed considerably, with new technologies like smartphones, apps and smart assistants.

To stay relevant and continue to meet users’ needs, digital services like the NHS website must constantly adapt and evolve.

Historically, our attempts to redesign our content to continue to meet the needs of our users (a process we call content ‘transformation’) have been focused on targeted, small-scale pieces of work.

While this has delivered some examples of great, user-centred content, we’ve found it difficult to deliver the broader transformation of the thousands of pieces of content across the website.

A few key problems became apparent with our approach:

  • inefficiency – lots of time and resource was being spent delivering one piece of work (sometimes just a single topic or page)
  • inconsistency – different teams were developing different content patterns, page designs and information architecture
  • knowledge not always shared across teams – teams would often work on one project and then quickly move on to something very different, with little chance to share or apply learnings more widely

We knew we needed to think differently about content transformation. While a lot of great work had been done, we needed a better approach to collating and sharing what we’d learnt, to make it easier to apply insights and recommendations at scale.

Re-thinking content groups on the NHS website

Partly inspired by the GOV.UK content types, we recognised that – despite the broad range of content on the NHS website – most of our medical content fell into some fairly clear groups.

These include:

  • conditions
  • symptoms
  • medicines
  • vaccines
  • tests
  • procedures

These groups, which seem so obvious now, were not really how we’d managed our content before. We had tended to see things in the much larger groups mirrored in our site structure, such as Health A to Z (medical content), Live Well (lifestyle content) and pregnancy and baby content.

Once we started to consider these smaller, more specific groups, it became clear that we already had relevant insights in many of these areas.

After looking through these insights, some patterns started to emerge. It became clear that content within these groups tended to share similar user needs and could be designed in similar ways.

We hypothesised that we could use these insights to help teams transform large groups of related content quickly, rather than starting from scratch each time they picked up a new piece of work.

What is a content type?

The NHS.UK content types are evidence-based blueprints for what good looks like for specific groups of content. They aim to provide a framework covering the key things content teams need to know to help them transform content quickly.

Each content type provides guidance on:

  • core user needs – the user needs shared across all content within the content type
  • organisational needs – what the NHS website or wider NHS is hoping to achieve by providing the content
  • core aspects – the mandatory sections of content needed to meet the core user needs and support content modularisation
  • secondary aspects – optional content sections that could also be included, depending on any additional user needs identified for each topic
  • content and design patterns – a library of examples of how we write and design our pages and specific sections of content

We intentionally designed these elements to be simple and high level.

We wanted to make sure they would apply to all topics covered by each content type, without forcing teams into an inflexible approach where content could not be tailored to meet any specific user needs they identified.

The content type frameworks only represent a minimum standard. We encourage teams to, whenever possible, look deeper into any user needs or content patterns that go beyond those outlined in the content type.

How we develop each content type

Each content type is developed following a 5-step process:

  1. Do an audit of the content you think belongs to the specific content type.
  2. Using on-site survey data and input from clinical colleagues, develop a candidate set of user needs.
  3. Draft a content type framework and apply it to a handful of sample topics that represent the wider group of content you’ve identified.
  4. Usability testing with users to identify potential un-met needs and gather insights to help develop common content patterns.
  5. Document patterns, iterate the content type blueprint and communicate across the content profession.

Benefits of the content type approach

Content types have been a key part of our content transformation strategy for over a year now and we’ve started to see some clear benefits:

  • faster to deliver – our teams have been able to create and publish significantly more transformed content than before, meaning we can deliver better content to our users more quickly
  • more consistent – content is now being written and designed in a more consistent way across the website and patterns are easily shared across all teams
  • more flexible – with a blueprint for all content types in place we can rapidly develop content at pace when faced with an urgent need
  • simpler to understand – we have a better understanding of exactly what content we have and can communicate this more easily to stakeholders, commissioners and any organisations interested in using our free syndication service
  • a shared goal – it’s clearer to teams how their work fits into the bigger picture of content transformation across the NHS website

Where we are now and next steps

We’re still developing and iterating our content types approach.

So far, we have content types for:

  • simple conditions
  • cancer
  • symptoms
  • accidents and injuries
  • medicines

These are currently in progress:

  • vaccinations
  • contraception
  • procedures

And during the 2023/24 financial year, we plan to develop content types for:

  • tests (including screening)
  • long-term conditions
  • ‘secondary care’ conditions (conditions that are treated in hospital)

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