How we create and manage content on our website

Pair writing

Pair writing is a collaborative technique for developing user focused content. It involves writing side by side with a subject matter expert. This could mean:

  • physically sitting together at the same laptop
  • writing together in a shared document using remote video conferencing

This is different to drafting copy and sending it to a subject expert to check. You can discuss content together while writing and work through problems or difficult sections collaboratively.

Pair writing is a useful way to:

  • engage subject experts in the design process at an early stage
  • build a relationship with the subject expert
  • help the subject expert focus on the user need you are trying to address

How to pair write

Explain how you plan to run the session

Decide how you are going to run your pair writing session before you start. Depending on who you are writing with and what you are writing about, you might choose to:

  • write together, with both people typing into a shared document
  • ask questions of the subject expert while you do all the typing
  • format the document together, including titles and headings
  • get as much information as you can during the pair write in a rough order, then structure it yourself after the pair write and send back to the subject expert for comment

Make sure you explain what you plan to do. Your subject expert may be new to pair writing and may be used to writing their own content. They may be used to giving as much information as they can, rather than focusing on one user need. They may not be used to writing and structuring content for people to read online.

Agree a time and date with the subject expert. Send them a calendar invite and agree how long the session will last.

Share your user story with the subject expert

Next, create a shared document, such as a Google Doc. Add your user story at the top. It is helpful to refer to the user story to keep your subject expert focused on only what the user needs.

For example, if you are writing content to help people find social housing your user story might be:

As a young adult in Buckinghamshire

I need to find out who provides social housing

So that I can apply for somewhere to live

In this case, your subject expert might be an advisor from the council's Housing Team. They might know everything about housing support services, including information about benefits, Council Tax reduction, repairs and homelessness. But you don't need all that information. You only need information relating to this specific user need as your research has told you that this is what people need help with.

You might also include acceptance criteria. You could draft these in advance or with your subject expert. Acceptance criteria are statements that explain what the content needs to do for the user. For the user story above, acceptance criteria might be:

  • I know who provides social housing in Buckinghamshire
  • I know how to contact the social housing provider
  • I know how to to find out if I'm eligible for social housing from this provider

Write together

You might start with a blank page, a list of questions or some draft headings. It's up to you.

Read the user story out loud before you start. Check that the subject expert understands what the user need is.

Make sure you give your subject expert time to speak or type, depending on what you've agreed. Help them to explain things in a way that users could understand.

Ask questions like:

"If you were talking to someone on the phone, how would you explain that?"

"Are those the words that people use when they talk about this?"

"Is there another way to explain that?"

"Would this order [of headings] make sense for users, in your experience?"

Don't worry about spelling and formatting everything correctly as this session is about facts and information.

Keep your expert focused on user need

If your subject expert starts talking about something that is not related to the user need, try suggesting that you go back to the user story. Some useful phrases include:

"That's really interesting, but can we just check in with the user story?"

"I'm going to make a note of that but it might not be right for this particular user need. What do you think?"

"In your experience, is that relevant to this type of user in this situation?"

"Our researchers found that people looked for that type of content in another place - can you tell me why it might fit better here?"

Explain what happens next

When you've finished your pair write, thank your subject expert and explain what you are going to do next. This might include:

  • drafting content based on what you've discussed
  • going back to your user researcher to ask extra questions that the subject expert has raised
  • agreeing when and how the subject expert can review your draft content once you've written it up

Good practice in pair writing (GOV.UK)