What can content design learn from the Royal Navy?

Late last year, a blog post was published about the Royal Navy’s new design system, NELSON standards.

Being a former member of the Royal Navy and a content designer too, this was right up my niche.

I started to think about how my time in ‘the Andrew’ had influenced my content design principles.

At its heart, content design is about finding the most efficient way possible to convey information effectively.

In any discipline, there’s sometimes a temptation to think that you’re the experts and that you couldn’t possibly learn off anyone else – especially not a bunch of salty old sea dogs.

There are lots of ways though that the Royal Navy manage their communications brilliantly, take ‘the pipe’ for example.

As sailors, you need to be able to contact people on your ship without disturbing other people too much so that you don’t spend hours wandering around looking for your shipmates.

To do this, a ‘pipe’ (announcement over the ship’s speaker system) will be made by the quartermaster or bosuns mate on the bridge.

The format of a pipe is strictly regimented. For example, when you want someone to go somewhere the pipe is that person’s unique identifier and location they should go to.

LMA, Sickbay

– A typical ‘pipe’ onboard a Royal Navy ship

In the example above, “LMA” stands for Leading Medical Assistant. If there were two LMA’s onboard then the surname of the person requested would be added.

The only exception to this rule is when a pipe is made for the Captain.

The Captain is requested to go to the sickbay

– A pipe requesting the Captain to go to the sickbay

The Captain of the ship is afforded the luxury of these extra words as, quite frankly, they’ve earned it.

User feedback on these communications is swift and brutal. Any new bosuns mate who makes a pipe that uses the wrong format, is unclear or uses extra words will be on the receiving end of an abusive phone call pointing out exactly where they went wrong. It’s like a content crit but with red faces and swearing.

There is room for some leeway however when you know the rules enough to break them. It takes an experienced hand who can judge the mood of the ship but you can occasionally get away with adding a dramatic pause, like before you make the pipe announcing the end of a particularly hard day.

Do you hear there? [dramatic pause] Leave. Leave in accordance with daily orders.

– The pipe all sailors love to hear (unless you’re on duty).

I even got away with a little poetry on one deployment after spending 3 months hard sailing in the Northern Arabian Gulf, the time felt right to wake the ship’s company up with a balmy description of the milky blue sea, the beautiful oil fires and the balmy weather. Reaction was mixed.

The usual wake up call is:

Call the hands, call the hands, call the hands

– A sailors alarm clock. Sometimes followed by a tune blown on a bosuns call

Anything requiring peoples absolute attention is repeated three times as experience has shown that people’s subconscious will try to ignore unwelcome news at first.

That’s why emergency pipe formats are so important and practiced daily. When an emergency is about to be practiced, the ‘safeguard rule’ is put in force.

This means that you can make a pipe like the one below and people won’t think it’s a real fire.

If there was a real fire during the safeguard rule the the pipe would be preceded by Safeguard, safeguard, safeguard.

Fire, fire, fire. Fire in the sickbay. Location 2 Echo. Emergency party muster at the scene.

– An emergency pipe

The Royal Navy shows how to do consistency in its content based on user needs better than most organisations. It’s not just pipes. From daily orders to instructions for firefighters to checklists. If something is unclear or not done properly, it can genuinely mean death or injury.

When we get something wrong in content design, we rarely get feedback as quickly or forcefully but it can still sometimes lead to quite grave consequences for our users.

We should keep this in mind when thinking about when and how we give feedback, although the shouting and swearing can probably stay at sea.

What are the lessons for content design?

  • Everyone in the organisation knows the importance of clear and concise information – not just the people who create it
  • Everyone actively feeds back when something is unclear and is encouraged to do so
  • Formats are sacrosanct – people just don’t mess with how daily orders, medical notes, pipes or instructions are displayed or the content within them which means that information is consistent across every ship, unit and establishment
  • There is one source of truth for guidelines (books of reference) which are tightly controlled, regularly updated and accountable

Read about their design system, NELSON standards.

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