You could say that our interest in advice borders on the obsessive. In the process of creating AdviceAid we have poured hundreds of hours into understanding what makes good advice. We already know that providing advice effectively is fundamental to your homelessness prevention strategy (as explored here).

So, here are the top 9 things in our experience that will take your advice to the next level – and hopefully prevent homelessness at the same time.

Content

What good is there in creating advice if the people who need it don’t actually read it?! The process of writing advice should be relentlessly focussed on the end-user. It needs to be written in an engaging and easy-to-read style that draws the reader in. Jargon is a big no-no, whilst simplicity is a must.

To distinguish advice from just information, it needs to evoke a response, a clear call to action that empowers the reader to act.

Legislation

The secret to writing effective advice is keeping it readable (as we’ve explored) whilst ensuring it is adequately comprehensive. Take section 179 duty for example. There are a number of circumstances that might be applicable to the reader. If you have not covered all of them, there is a good chance that your customer won’t be helped. In this case, go back to the legislation to see what information and advice is applicable. Make sure that you have covered all of the required topics.

It's giving me the information that I actually want as opposed to irrelevant information and shows me the thing of value.

Customer of Lewisham Council describing AdviceAid SelfServ

Value

Any advice you provide has to demonstrate value to the reader for them to engage and feel empowered to resolve their situation.

As the organisation that has a statutory duty to provide homelessness advice – a certain level of value is already anticipated. Therefore, it is vitally important that you provide accurate advice. Are the telephone numbers provided up-to-date? Have you covered all possible circumstances (e.g. s179)? Is the advice tailored to any unique local commonalities?

Critically analyse the value that a customer gets from your advice offer by reading each page from their perspective. If the advice isn’t immediately understandable and actionable, then it probably won’t be followed. It is worth considering that your customers will often be seeking advice at times of high personal stress. It has to cut through.

Clutter

Less is more. This is particularly relevant on advice web pages. We’ve already considered the context in which someone might be seeking advice. They will present with a specific situation and circumstance. Helping the reader navigate to the relevant advice quickly and easily is key. If your online advice is cluttered nobody will read it. Take away everything that is not strictly required.

Friendly URLs

Friendly URL’s are short and easy to remember. These URLs help customers remember web addresses, which means they can revisit pages by simply typing in the URL address bar. This is useful if referring to an advice page with a customer over the phone. For example, a council may use the URL “www.epicforest.gov.uk/housing/advice” for the advice section of their website. This is much easier to remember than a long convoluted URL, like “www.epicforest.gov.uk/section/support/default.aspx?id=1&lang=en“. It also looks much tidier when written down.

Structure

How your online advice is structured will be a significant factor to determine whether the customer finds the help for which they are looking. The best online tools bring the customer on an interactive journey to ascertain their circumstances and provide tailored advice on their situation.

This is particularly challenging to achieve on a traditional advice website. I haven’t encountered many LA housing advice pages that have nailed it. Even if you can successfully avoid clutter, the shear amount of advice you have a duty to provide makes layout tricky.

Carefully worded contents (with links) based around common presenting situations would help enormously. Ensure good use of headers and organise advice topics around themes. Place the most commonly presenting scenarios near the top, over an alphabetical approach. Optimising a search facility (ideally with suggested searches) is good practice.

Tell people

If nobody knows about the excellent housing advice on your website, it is ultimately of no use. Every communication with customers is an opportunity to empower people to self-help and understand the key messages that could help them to resolve their issue.

Think about the notification letters and emails you send, the telephone conversations you have, the face to face interview you attend and the role that your partner agencies play.

Try simple tricks like placing a URL link in your email footer; and placing posters in drop-in’s, council reception areas, libraries, social housing notice boards and other places your customers frequent. Does your council’s website use web chat or chatbot? Ensure it is signposting your advice. Explore how you and your partners can promote the service through an orchestrated social media campaign.

SMS and email

If your case management system has SMS or email functionality, create templates for different advice topics. Officers can then generate specific communications at various times during a case. An SMS template could be as simple as: “Dear [FNAME], Please see some advice on how to find a private let at https://epicforest.adviceaid.uk/advice/how-to-find-a-private-rented-home”.

The advantage of providing a link to your online advice is that it will make your customers aware of the option. This will increase the likelihood of them going online first next time – saving you officer time.

Accessibility

At least 1 in 5 people in the UK have a long-term illness, impairment or disability. Many more have a temporary disability. Make your content and design clear and simple enough so that most people can use it. Ensure your website is fully compatible with screen readers and other assistive technology. This is not a hard as it sounds, and most modern web design is orientated to these standards.

One of the remaining challenges for local authorities is replacing non-accessible PDFs. If you need another good reason to make your website or mobile application accessible – flouting the standards may mean you are breaking the law! We’ve unpacked this subject in more detail here.

It is really worth making the effort to get your online advice offer to a good standard. The benefits of providing advice that empowers your customers to help themselves are huge. Preventing the impact of homelessness to the customer, and cost of intervention from the council is the goal. Well written and presented, accessible advice really can make the difference.

Your customers are looking online – are you providing what they need?