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How to better communicate research – learnings from a redesign project

17 August 2020 | 5 min read

As part of my role at NCVO, I lead on the UK Civil Society Almanac – an annual research publication on the state of the charity sector in the UK. Since its first launch in 1997 as hardcopy only, the Almanac kept evolving and went online in 2012. However, when I started managing the project in 2018, the website and print publication felt outdated and incoherent while the content had almost become a copy and paste exercise. I was tasked with a redesign and this blog summarises what I learned.

Find out where you are

In line with greater digitalisation, the Almanac is now mainly published online while the hardcopy has changed from 170 text heavy pages to a 50-page professionally designed summary report. Compared to many other research outputs our starting point wasn’t that bad, but at a closer look some issues emerged.

In 2012, the Almanac website was built by a member of the research team using WordPress. Even though this gave us control over content, it also meant that a lot of the team’s resources were going towards maintaining the website. Plugins like HighCharts and TablePress provided great flexibility for data visualisation but required skills in Json and CSS to create nice looking charts. The print publication, which was produced simultaneously, lacked connection with the digital version in terms of messaging and visual design. The print publication had been outsourced to the same agency for more than 10 years and did not meet data visualisation standards that had advanced in recent years.

It became clear that we had to come up with a more consistent narrative and bridge the gap between the different outputs. The publications should be driven much more by the needs of our audience.

Define your brand and objective

You might think a research report is not a brand. This is probably true for one-off smaller publications, but it is highly effective for a project like the Almanac that consists of multiple outputs and channels. Over the years while the Almanac had changed with the times, it had not adopted a consistent communication strategy. I was able to commission Furthr – a branding and data visualisation agency – to run a three-hour workshop to get clarity on the Almanac’s goals, audience, benefits and tone of voice. With external support we were able to pin down what the main objective was and make hard decisions on our main audience and what they should take away from our research. As an overall goal, the Almanac should work for our core audience of senior stakeholders such as CEOs of charities, in terms of content and the way it is presented. This guided all our later decisions on our outputs and how we communicate.

Ensure implementation in line with goals

At the same time, there was an organisation wide project on the way to create a new digital publication platform. This meant we could use the new content management system for our Almanac website and the development was led by the digital team. During this process, we met regularly to review the progress and ensure the tool would meet our needs.

For more specific research content, such as tables and charts, we had to find a suitable data visualisation tool that could be integrated with the website. So I signed up to various data visualisation libraries and compared their offers. We decided on DataWrapper as it’s easy to use, has a clean look and a lot of free features. Although it isn’t as flexible as HighCharts, it reduced the amount of time and skills needed to produce professional looking charts that were on brand. For the print edition, I found a few design agencies focusing on data visualisations and put together a design brief based on our goals. We then decided to go with Data Design Studios as they had a lot of existing data skills, including in-house researchers, and their proposal linked well to our brief.

Create content based on user needs

While working on the technical development, we also reviewed our published content to make it more centred around what our users wanted to know. As a first exercise we created a Knowledge Board based on previous user research. Fortunately, we had a range of user data to draw from and drive our discussions, including stakeholder interviews, surveys with charities and Google Analytics data. This drove our decisions around the structure of the report, the topics we would cover and the prominence of each. Although, a lot was limited by our methodology, we also added more additional data sources to meet our users’ interests. We also added a wider range of content, including definitions we’re using and downloadable data tables.


Produce clear messages, less noise

While focusing on user needs, we also wanted to improve our content based on evidence and good practice in communicating research. Previously, most of the heading and chart titles within the Almanac were purely statistical. But research has shown that good headings and titles are more memorable when they are descriptive. The ONS digital team has done a great job in sharing knowledge of how and why they are changing the way they communicate statistical information. To help users understand the content more quickly, we started to focus on the key messages. We also prioritised them in terms of how important and useful they are for our main target audience – decision makers in charities – to reduce overall noise. We did this across all our channels (website, print and social media).


Keep improving

Our plans to create a more coherent content strategy, to change print designers and develop a new website in one year were very ambitious, but we did it. I was extremely pleased with the overall outcome and we received a lot of positive feedback. Since then, we have continued to improve things, including making use of Google Analytics to inform our content and homepage layout as well as adding spotlight sections on interesting aspects based on stakeholder input.