The gov.uk website has been hailed for its design, simplicity and effectiveness. With good websites becoming more vital it has attracted praise. If you are part of an organisation you need to know how it works.
About a month ago I pinged an email (see how I’ve grasped the corporate babble nettle already?) to @danslee, one of the founders of the comms2point0 blog influential, among its local government readership, explaining why I thought GOV.UK would soon be regarded as one of the most important web creations of the year, if not the decade.
What I didn’t elucidate upon at the time, to a great extent was the why. That the more we’re bombarded with, the more we want peace, simplicity, a lack of embellishment, and the facts. Just the facts.
It’s precisely this kind of thinking that’s informing the redesign of my employer’s website. And one month after that conversation, GOV.UK has delivered to the incredibly-astute GDS team a shiny new gong.
Simple, clearer, faster
There’s been a lot of talk of late in local authority land about the demand for task-focused navigation.
“Pay this”, “do that”. There’s a rebellion which insinuates people apply different processes and vocabulary to the completing of tasks, which means you cannot possibly be intuitive when it comes to overarching navigation. Or ‘one man’s meat is another’s poison’.
So why not just spell it out? Why should we worry about how to contextualise something when in reality all we want is to find stuff better?
GOV.UK has summed it all up as ‘simpler, clearer, faster’. My interpretation, as it stands right now, is Project Gwell. If you’re not Welsh, fear not – Google Translate is here to help.
Love at first site
I’ve never felt this way before. Maybe a long time ago, but I was younger, then. More naive. This time it feels special, unique, long-lasting.
Now my heart belongs to GOV.UK. I guess now would be a good time to check dowry arrangements with @GDSTeam because I’m falling hard. I swear to you I’m in deep with this one. This is it.
I’ve been courting websites since the internet came to the UK. I’m not naive, and I’m sparing in pledging devotion to any particular web property.
To me, usability comes first. And in this device-leaden world we live in, websites have a tougher job than ever of hitting the ubiquitous UX brief.
One thing that sprung to mind attending last weekend’s Blue Light Camp (take a bow, @Sasha_Taylor) here in Manchester was IT has become a barrier rather than facilitator. And it’s been that way for years.
But the good news is it forces us to live within our means. And in many ways GOV.UK is a metaphor for that.
Gone is the clunk, in its place a beautifully-degraded-from-the-outset website any ICT manager would approve. Links, a sparse peppering of images – only when absolutely necessary – and you have the framework of a website others would be well advised to follow.
Making the complex simple
Which is what makes GOV.UK remarkable, in my eyes. Never has a simple site been so complicated in execution. Which when you look at the questionable machinations of our administration, makes the achievements through gov.uk even more impressive.
I’ve never been wowed by Flash intros, and only occasionally have my eyes been aroused by big, brash images. When I go the web I do so to complete an action, find some information, or Tweet about a cake.
In my mind the ideal site would blend the near-telepathic search of Google with the old world of Yahoo, myriad categories presented to those in a state of mild confusion as to what their objectives are once hitting your web property.
GOV.UK, then, is my panacea.
In a week when I’ve become deeply cynical of everything adaptive, considering it to be nothing more than a mandate by hard-up web developers to round up more work, GOV.UK proves it to be more than just a marketing whim.
Few have cracked the code to delivering great navigation that feels like an extension of the user’s mind. A hand through the mist.
Such instinctive web signposting, which really should be a mandatory component of any collection of pages online, comes into particularly sharp focus for users on the move.
Adaptive design, rather than merely making a website legible on a smaller screen, is clearly the way ahead for sites like GOV.UK who have a message to deliver to everyone – not just those chained to the desk.
There are many examples on GOV.UK of having pulled this off.
It’s no small job, crafting a site of such scale on the emerging HTML5 technology, but using a framework taking into account little touches to guide users through complicated processes, which sits as a pseudo sidebar on full fat workstations and renders itself as a convenient container below the primary river of content on finger-length displays, is a modus operandi to which we should all be slavishly devoted.
What GOV.UK is doing is showing us how to embrace the new norms and rid ourselves of clutter that’s disrupting the way we service customer needs and compromise our opportunities to reap the rich rewards of channel shift.
It’s so good (except the search – please, GDSTeam, work on the finding funnel next) I think Paul Boag would approve. This is the model preached by Jakob Nielsen through his lean web philosophy for years; decades, almost.
It has a long way to go. But taking a phased approach to wrapping every aspect of government in an uncluttered and broadly accessible skin is the right one.
And in less than six months 18 of 24 Ministerial Departments have been templated, with more than 25 other related departments and bodies following the same path (https://www.gov.uk/government)
Apps? In the browser, only
I have this personal theory that in the majority of cases, it’s not apps we need but a developer and usability expert conspiring to create a website available and accessible to everyone, wherever they are and whatever device touted, that solves a problem or scratches that itch.
The search is rubbish. Or worse than it should be. Nothing that a partnership with Google Custom Search couldn’t solve, though I imagine there are reasons why David and George find the idea of partnering with a US service provider questionable at best.
GOV.UK sets a precedent. It takes us back to the days where the web did what it was told. And in a world where we’re all drowning in information, and our senses are dulled by a constant assault of video and imagery, we need all the help we can get, getting there.
What the world needs now, apart from love, sweet love, is a hybrid approach to website UX. A way for those with a clear and definite purpose to find, and those needing a crutch to make an aided search.
And as far as I know, the secrets to creating a kick-ass site for constituents haven’t yet been shared widely among webmasters in local government circles.
Which makes what the GDS team has done immensely altruistic. You see, far from charting their progress and achievements to fill a hole in some annal deep in the heart of Whitehall, they’ve gone and made it all available. To everyone. Ideally, local authorities will get the hint and revolutionise local democracy online.
GOV.UK’s offering to the world takes two, sequential and logical, forms:
https://www.gov.uk/designprinciples - how we did it
https://www.gov.uk/service-manual - how you can do it
After the £35 million a year WWW carbuncle that was Business Link online, it’s nothing short of revolutionary to find the GOV.UK team creating a remarkable website spanning dozens of government departments, and having the confidence to chart its secrets, subliminally urging us all to follow suit.
Simpler, clearer, faster. Noone can argue the web wizards in government are working towards fulfilling their three-pronged mantra.
Lead by example
What does this mean for the web designer? Reshaping of skills, I would imagine, and an overturning of the desultory doffing of cap to usability and navigational interfaces.
The next year in my professional life is going to be an exciting, challenging and widely-embracing one.
Because to stand above the rest, we need our customers’ help more than ever before. They have the choice to use or ignore us, meaning our primary goal must be to embrace their every need we can logically address using online channels.
If you want to create a site that’s useful on every device, pare back and focus on usability first.
Though few publicly approve of Microsoft’s efforts with Windows 8, its Modern UI/Metro approach harnessing block-coloured tiles and buttons needing nothing more than uncomplicated CSS 3 and logically-planned HTML5, is another way to win the war (and customers).
GOV.UK. Simple, clearer, faster. An ode to modern life. A design for online.
Will you play?