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Using pair writing to improve internal guidance

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Using sticky notes at the start of the pair-writing process

In the Department for Education’s (DfE) digital, data and technology team (DDaT), we’ve identified a need for simpler guidance on internal buying (‘procurement’) processes.

Our research has shown that this guidance is hard to find on the intranet. It’s also hard to discover if you’re a contractor (as you won’t have access to the intranet). And the length and complexity means it’s hard to absorb. So there’s a need to make things clearer, especially to remove ambiguity around the things digital delivery teams need to do to comply with the law.

As a content designer working in DDaT, I decided to try and address these needs by pair writing new guidance with the DfE contracts manager who wrote the original guidance. Pair writing can be very useful when you quickly need input from someone who’s an expert in a particular area. It can also increase a sense of partnership with a stakeholder.

My goal is to create a ‘quick start’ guide for newcomers to digital delivery teams who need to know about buying. The writer of the original guidance has also been keen to take a fresh look at it.

What we did

For the first session, we started off going through the user needs (for example, ‘As a digital delivery team, I need to procure the right service for my project’s needs, so that I can deliver my project effectively’). I printed each need out individually in advance of the session, so that we could look at them together and make sure we understood them.

As we did this, my pair-writing ‘buddy’ informed me of the legal compliance points that relate to each need. I added these as sticky notes onto each need, so that when we began writing we would remember to work these in.

It took us about an hour to get through this stage. Taking this time meant that we were were aligned in our approach once the writing started.

Doing the writing

Before the session I drafted a skeletal, step-by-step structure in a Google Doc. I did this to give us a ‘jumping-off’ point, given that we only had 2 hours for the session.

We paired by opening up the Google Doc on our respective laptops and taking turns to write and comment. Pairing in this way was useful in terms of quickly bringing our respective skills together. It also meant that we could both shape the finished product while not losing sight of the user needs.

For me, pair writing has been particularly helpful in terms of:

  • clarifying the compliance aspects (I’m new to this area and unfamiliar with the landscape)
  • clarifying the aspects of the process that the contracts and commercial team do, and don’t, need to be involved in
  • reducing the sign-off stages required later

The most challenging area is the language. My goal is to use plain English throughout. However, through our collaboration it’s become clear that there are some legal issues that require a more cautious approach. We plan on addressing this when the content gets signed off by senior stakeholders, to see how we can balance the need for simplicity with the nature of the legal landscape.

Follow-up sessions

We found that, owing to the complexity of the information, we didn’t have enough time to finish the draft in one session. We also became aware of the dependencies in terms of related content: there are steps that the user would need to take before reaching the specific part of their ‘buying’ journey, as well as related forms and guidance notes. So we set up 2 more sessions (by phone, as we’re based in different cities) to finish the draft.

What’s next

I will support the contracts manager with these next steps:

  • sign off by senior colleagues in the contracts and commercial team
  • testing the guide with digital delivery teams
  • getting it onto the intranet
  • looking at feedback and analytics - iterating the guide further if needed

I would recommend pair writing as a method of collaboration. As well as the obvious benefits of collaboration and saving time, it can help you and your pairing buddy rethink your assumptions around what information the user needs to know.

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