Why this New Zealand public sector website won first prize

I’m often asked to fish drowning websites out of the sea and breathe life into them, so this year I relished the chance to instead explore the web pride and joy of the New Zealand and Australian public sectors. I was one of a team of three judging this year’s Best Public Sector Website in the Plain Language Awards.

Our panel unanimously chose Te Whatu Ora (Health New Zealand)’s Immunise as the brightest star among the many entries.

Health information is close to my heart. I find it often grabs my attention for the wrong reasons. Some pamphlets and posters in hospital or doctors’ waiting rooms are a Greatest Hits of Making Things Unnecessarily Complicated.

Take this obscure, baffling jargon on my dad’s hospital breakfast menu:

LinkedIn screenshot showing hospital menu with a list of spreads described as 'PCU's from Suraya Casey with comment around the use of unnecessary catering jargon

Te Whatu Ora’s Immunise couldn’t be further from the strange alien landscape of Spread PCU (Olivani). I rarely see a site with so little room to improve.

I can’t list everything Immunise does right, but here’s what particularly impressed me.

Strong visual design

I suspect many-a terrible website exists because someone prioritised having an attractive or snazzy website over one that gets the message across. Some folk can easily list all the ‘bells and whistles’ they want – like carousels and animated backgrounds – but struggle to answer questions like, Who is your audience? or, What do you want visitors to do on your site?

Great design is 99 percent invisible. It aims to give such a seamless experience that it goes unnoticed. Strong, clear layout lets plain language do its best work.

Accessibility for disabled web users

After working for UK disability charity Scope, I realised many people in web design and content don’t fully understand accessibility.

That’s why I check websites for basic accessibility practice first – do they know how to use subheading levels, image alt text and link text? Although the public sector tends to emphasise accessibility, many public sector websites don’t apply these basics.

Immunise gets it right throughout. I did find some images lacking alt text, but I doubt that would stop anyone understanding the content.

Blog: Top accessibility myths and why they’re wrong

Clear purpose

Many websites fail to make clear what their site is about and who it’s for. I often see titles and standfirsts full of buzzwords and fluff instead of direct and relevant statements aiming to draw the audience in.

The content strategist’s best tool for assessing clarity of purpose is the Norwegian Content Test. It goes like this:

  1. Take the page title and standfirst (short introductory statement) from any page.
  2. Show it to someone who has never seen it before.
  3. Ask them to tell you (or write down) what they think the page is about, who it’s for and three questions they expect it to answer.

Immunise’s homepage title and standfirst are perfect:

Immunise website title and standfirst: Protect yourself, your whānau, and your community. Immunise.
Immunisation saves lives. As well as protecting yourself from dangerous diseases, getting your tamariki vaccinated is one of the best ways to set them up for a healthy future. Lots of vaccines in New Zealand are free.
Titles and standfirsts should ensure visitors know instantly this site is for them, and what they can get from it.

It makes abundantly clear who the website is for and what it does, in a light-handed, straightforward tone.

Writing equal-to-equal

Some people misunderstand plain language to mean talking down, but it’s quite the opposite. People tend to use the plainest, clearest language when they’re with those they most respect and relate to.

When I teach plain language, I recommend imagining you’re talking to a friend over coffee as you write – even speaking aloud what you’d say.

Two friends having an animated chat, seen through a cafe window
Photo: Franky Van Bever, Unsplash

Suddenly, language changes. We speak in short sentences. Purchase, utilise and remunerate become buy, use and pay. We use contractions and usually, active voice.

Plain language is all about having the greatest respect for your audience.

Nielsen Norman Group: People find plain language more trustworthy, regardless of their status

How did they do it? 6 strategies for public sector web success

The Immunise project team gave us a little information about their process alongside their entry. Here’s some of their tactics I recommend all public sector web projects use:

  1. Understand the problem you want to address
  2. Understand who your audience is and learn more about them
  3. Thoroughly test information architecture (IA) – that’s your menu structure and section titles
  4. Apply insight from related work
  5. Use analytics and user feedback to choose the most relatable language
  6. Use plain language tools like Hemingway Editor to reduce complexity and ensure a consistent, appropriate reading level.

Perhaps one day these strategies will form part of a guide all public sector web projects might use to ensure they’re doing the best by their audiences.

Congratulations again to Te Whatu Ora’s Immunise website project team for a much-deserved win.