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Meeting user needs with Gov.UK

In October of 2012 the UK government launched a new website, Gov.UK, which was designed to host all of the central government’s information in one spot. Neil Williams, Product Manager at Gov.UK, spoke about the strategy and process behind building the website in his presentation “Government Digital Service: Gov.UK” at this year’s UK digital communications event. gov.uk

As Neil explained, the Gov.UK site was created to provide a single website for the central government that would replace the central government’s previous two main sites, DirectGov and Business Link, with something clearer and simpler for users. As part of the migration, thousands of pages from DirectGov and Business Link that no one visited were archived, and those pages that remained were made as easy and accessible to the user as possible. As of April 2013, all 24 of the government department sites had migrated to the central Gov.UK site. Rather than having to visit multiple pages on multiple websites to find information or an answer to a question, users can now find everything they need in one place. But, Neil said, that doesn’t mean the work is over.

“Gov.UK is designed to react to user needs, which means that we make small improvements to the site nearly every single day. This kind of iterative response and change based on what our users need is at the heart of everything we do.” Clearly, this approach has paid off. Earlier this year Gov.UK won the prestigious Design Museum’s 2013 Design of the Year Award, the first website ever to do so.

So, how do you make a useful website that wins awards?

You start with needs, Neil said. People don’t come to government websites for fun, they come to accomplish tasks and fulfill needs. Creating any web page without that as the central design principle is a simple waste of time. You have to understand what users are coming to your site for, and structure the site around that. Gov.UK achieved this by creating user stories for its 6.5 million unique visitors every week. They found that those 6.5 million people were coming to do roughly the same 3000 things, so they focused their attention on figuring out how to make doing those things easier, faster, and more efficient.

There are currently 102 organizations publishing their content on Gov.UK, with over 200 more on the way. Of course, this means there’s an extremely high volume of content being published every single day. To keep things manageable for users, Neil and his team created a publishing system that only allows organizations to publish content that meets defined user needs. There is no such thing as a general information page on Gov.UK.

“So how do we make sense of all of this? How do people understand and find the content they want? First, we needed to collaborate across organizations. And second, we need to notify people about new or updated content that meets their needs,” Neil said.

Before, when users wanted to find information about a certain topic, like climate change for example, they would have to jump from site to site, attempting to locate what they wanted from any number of different government organizations and never knowing if it was the best or most current content. Now, because everything is located on one page on one central site, users can find exactly what they need much easier. To ensure the content on each topical page is the most accurate and relevant available, all departments and agencies with information on that topic work together to curate what is included and how it is presented. Users are now brought to a single page with clear and concise information, and a “details” tab with more information in case they want to dig deeper.

Letting people know when information they’re interested in is available is where GovDelivery comes in, Neil explained. Gov.UK allows users to subscribe to extremely specific alerts, offering many different permutations based on organization, topics, and policies, all the way down to publication type. So, if a user is interested in getting alerts whenever a new speech about education is published, they can filter and combine to build a special alert sent through GovDelivery that meets their very specific interest.

Gov.UK now has over 415 mailing lists and email alerts are the sixth top referrers back to the Gov.UK site. Though these numbers indicate that the subscription system is meeting user needs, Neil and his team would like to make the alerts even more specific.

“People’s interests are unique. We want to provide as useful a service  as we can, which means helping the people who want email alerts to get exactly the emails they need and nothing more. If we focus on user needs, collaborate across governments to create content that better meets those needs, and notify people about just the things they’re interested in, it means we can have a better signal to noise ratio from central government.”

For the full story about the ideas and process behind Gov.UK, watch Neil Williams’ presentation here.