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Style Manual

How people find information

Design content based on the ways users find information.

Learn how users search for information

Do user research so you can work out how content will:

  • be found using different search strategies
  • answer the questions users ask
  • present the way users think it will
  • use everyday language – many search queries are voice search.

Include the main words and phrases that people search for. This is part of search engine optimisation (SEO).

People use different strategies

Finding useful information online takes time and effort. People use different ways to:

  • look for information
  • browse through search results or content
  • assess the search results and content.

As people search for information, they often change what they're looking for.

They way people look for information also changes with context. It can depend on someone's emotional state, their environment and what they are looking for. But some people always use the same strategies to find content.

People go straight to information if they:

  • know about the topic
  • trust the source
  • have used the source before
  • know about the source because other people recommended it
  • have already found similar information in that source
  • have found the same content before.

Digital Service Standard requirements

You must understand the needs of all users of your service and create content they can access to meet the Digital Service Standard:

Finding information requires a range of skills

A successful search for information requires these skills:

  • operational skills – entering a URL in the right place, or putting the keywords in a search engine
  • formal skills – navigating across different websites without getting lost
  • information skills – choosing the right information that will help the user
  • strategic skills – choosing the right words to find the right content.

People may use navigation, site search or both

People use government websites to complete a task or find information. They will browse using navigation tools (menus and links), or use the site's search function. They might also do both.

Navigation

When browsing, it is easier for people to recognise a familiar term than it is for them to remember the right keyword for a search. For this reason, some people prefer to navigate using menus and links.

Others need to browse to discover new sources of information.

Some people won't browse because site search is more effective for them.

Site search

People tend to use site search:

  • as a fallback when they can't find what they want using navigation tools
  • if they are looking for a particular document or product.

To help people who prefer to find information through site search, remember:

  • Complex websites need site search for finding content.
  • On very large websites, site search is often the best way to find pages that contain specific phrases or keywords. These pages hold content that navigation tools might not discover.
  • People may also use the site search function on the search engine results page, if the site is configured to show this.

Familiar page structures are easier to search

Familiar structures work best because people understand and expect them. The effort goes into scanning and reading, rather than searching through content. Use the guidance on content structure.

Accessibility requirements

Write clear page titles. This is the first thing to appear in search results and the first words heard by screen reader users.

Organise content in a clear order using section headings. Make sure all users can navigate through all content in the intended order, regardless of the technology they are using. 

Use the same navigation elements consistently across services. Make sure the user can understand where they are within the website or service.

Write link text that makes the destination and purpose of the link clear.

WCAG quick reference:

Release notes

The digital edition has an online focus for how people find information and how people read. It does not directly address how people find information in printed material. It has similar information on scanning and reading print and digital content.

The sixth edition had information on how people find information online and in print. It included information on indexing that is not part of the digital edition’s Live release.

The digital edition omits some information from the sixth edition on eye movement.

The sixth edition explained how readers absorb information. It included information about context and patterning, attention spans, style and layout, and images (called ‘illustrations’). It referred to the use of moving images to get users’ attention. This information sits on other pages in the digital edition, which are linked to types of structure.

The Content Guide did not address this topic, but had related information on writing for search engines and navigation labels.

About this page

References

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Weblium (2019) ‘Website navigation design: 12 best practices’, Weblium blog, accessed 1 November 2019.

This page was updated Tuesday 22 September 2020.

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