Inspiration and surprises – our day at GOV.UK

We’ve already told you some of the broader things we learnt at GOV.UK, visiting their Government Digital Service (GDS) office in London, but I wanted to pick out some of the smaller, more personal details that I saw, so here’s a little bit more.

Bunting and post-its

Bunting and Post its
One colourful corner of the GOV.UK office

The first thing you notice walking into the office is just how colourful it is. I suspect it was the football (England and Wales were playing that afternoon) that made it feel a little emptier than expected, but the space was lit up with a mixture of post-its, bunting, live analytics displays, pictures and quotes. The window rainbows were particularly delightful.

This made a very busy, flexible space feel incredible welcoming and positive. It also made it really clear just how deep the ways of working were embedded. User needs were literally everywhere. Everything looked set up so that it could be taken apart and rebuilt the instant something needed to change. Everything was agile, basically.

Such process

One of the first things we did was watch a team ‘stand up‘, a daily ceremony where the team catches up on what they’re doing that day, and highlight any problems they have in their way.

Multiple teams do this in the same place, so there’s a strict schedule, with just seven minutes for each team. This meant that information was exchanged really quickly and concisely. Everyone looked really practiced, and so it went really smoothly.

This was just one element of an impressively elaborate (but sensible) system for funneling work through the people doing it.

Incoming work was ‘triaged’: some jobs would go to a team that just dealt with the things that take less than ten minutes, longer things went into the bigger work plan (and would eventually show up in those team stand ups). This meant it was spotted really quickly if the team wouldn’t have enough information to work on it, and responsibility was put back to the team requesting the work.

Technically, this is the same stuff we do when we’re prioritising work, but we’re normally doing it as one person or one small team, so it was fascinating seeing the process in running in an almost industrialised way. The scale of it was impressive, the smoothness even more so.

They’re the best around

The truth is, GOV.UK and the GDS are held as the gold standard of digital delivery in government. I’ve not met someone who works in local government digital who isn’t inspired by the work they do. I think I may have had a slightly dazed, glazed hero worship look on my face all day.

So it was amazing speaking to the people actually doing that work.

They split their job roles quite distinctly, and we spoke to a content designer, a delivery manager, a user researcher and an analytics expert (among others). Each of them knew their work inside out. It was really impressive.

Notes from our team catch up the next day

But two things made it even more inspiring.

Firstly, we knew exactly what they were talking about. They were saying all the right things, but little of it was surprising. They’re the best, because they practice it day in, day out. But we can do that too. We face the same challenges, and are pushing for the same things.

Secondly, we do all of those jobs at once. I think of my role as content designer (and now want it in my job title), but actually I’ve done user research, analytics and managed delivery of projects.

We’re only working with one council (with a lot less money), and they’re doing the whole government, so obviously they have a bigger team, and they split the roles up. We have less to do (though it never feels that way) but do exactly the same work. We just have to be all-rounders.

Honestly, I’ve never felt more confident in myself and my team, than nodding along and understanding some of the best in our field, and recognising it was how we work, and how we try to work.

Thanks GOV.UK

There’s so much more, but this is already getting too long. We were making notes furiously about the tools they used, what they call things (calling the search, navigation and information architecture team simply ‘finding things’ is genuinely brilliant; user needs, right in the team name), how they champion their work, and the difficulties they have. We know we’re going in the right direction, we just need to keep on moving. My confidence was boosted, but I still think we’ve got a long way to go.

Thanks so much to everyone we talked to (John, Jessica, Lucy, Natalie, Ray, Vin and Joe) for being so open and honest and helpful. Thanks to everyone else for letting us wander around and generally stand in their way! Thanks for an inspiring, surprising and educational day.

No place like home – how people use our website, and what we need to learn

When we look at new designs for websites, it’s common to go straight for the home page. This is the shop window, the first thing people see, our first impression. It’s important to get that right, to set the tone of the experience. Laying everything out clearly so people can find exactly what they need to.

Except, well, it’s not actually what happens.

In the real world, Google is our home page.

We use Google analytics to find out how people are using our website, and after having read and said ‘every page is a landing page’ so many times, I wanted to look at the actual numbers.

Because numbers are convincing.

Sessions graphIn February, 88% of sessions on our website, did not include a single visit to our home page.

Just under 9% started on the home page.

Our home page is the home page in less than 10% of visits.

Not only that, but we can also tell that people who aren’t visiting our home page are probably having a better experience, finding what they need quicker, with less work, how can we tell?

It’s the analytics again.

People who use the home page are 12 times more likely to use search.

We tend to see site search as an indicator of bad content, as it means people can’t find what they are looking for. This isn’t always the case, as sometimes people just prefer to search than navigating through the website, so we probably need to do a bit more research here, but it’s an interesting bit of data.

We can also see that people who don’t use the home page spend half the time and half the pages on their visits. This is probably a good thing for them, as it implies they’re finding what they’re looking for quickly.

We’re making assumptions here, but actually, we can check these assumptions by thinking about our own experience and how it matches with user testing, by us and across the sector.

There’s no place like home (except everywhere else)

We need to remember we’re building all of our web pages to be the first page people look at.

We need to be sure our page titles are precise and particular, and our content is focused enough that people find the right page when they need it. Fancy people call this SEO, or search engine optimisation, I prefer to think of it as good, clear content.

We can’t rely on a good page structure or a clear home page to make our website work, it’s about making every page good. Every page linked to other relevant content. Every page clear and easy to use.

Without being mentioned, this was made really clear in our first beta website designs, which didn’t even include a design for a home page. The home page isn’t the first thing to get right, it’s one of the last.

We can see this in other organisations. The NHS alpha website launched it’s content without a home page, writing:

In NHS Choices, 1.4% of total visits start at the homepage. The vast majority (78.6%) come via search. (Data period: 11/2014 – 11/2015). For a high traffic site like NHS Choices, 1.4% isn’t an insignificant figure as it translates to 8.7million visits. Therefore, the homepage is still relevant, but it’s all the more important to get right what it navigates to first.

Another interesting example is Quartz. They’re a news organisation, and even with digital variants of these, it’s hard to find a sector more obsessed with the front page. Both Reddit and Digg claim to be the front page or home page of the internet. The old newspapers are all clamouring for their home page to be your home page.

But Quartz came along with a new idea (probably the right idea).

Quartz launched without a homepage. If you went to, you just went straight to their most popular article at the time. They know that news is being shared directly by people on social media. Why would you want one home page, when you have the home page built by your own personalised stream of recommendations from friends, influencers and interesting people. Everyone is trawling the internet and sharing the best bits. Who has time for a home page, when you have that?

In an interview with Fast Company design Quartz’s executive editor said:

The idea of a strictly traditional homepage that people bookmark to find stories is, we think, outdated. But at the same time, we don’t want to be defeatist about it. There’s still a large number of people coming to the homepage each day. So we’ve asked ourselves, ‘If you start throwing out the old conventions, what can you do instead?’

So they started with nothing, and have iterated new and different home pages since then. (Though I think they were bolder when they went without).

We aren’t a news company, but we can take inspiration from them.

The way social media is disrupting news is similar to the way google has disrupted how we find information.

The key is, it’s not about home pages, it’s about users. We need to put the information exactly where people look for it, rather than trying to push people towards it.

It’s a big job, but we’re up for the challenge.