https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2011/04/28/alpha-gov-uk-design-rules/

A few design rules for Alpha.gov.uk

Back in February when we were kicking off the alpha project, we spent the first couple of weeks scouring search logs and analytics for the various central government websites; thinking about who our users were and generally discussing the kind of thing we were setting out to make.

‘User centred’ was always going to be one of the fundamentals of the project, but it’s a mutable concept so we wanted to set out more clearly what we were all about – to set out some rules to guide our thinking and to keep us honest.

Here are some of the rules we set ourselves:


Based on what we learned from looking at search-logs, we knew that there was a relatively small subset of tasks that require the majority of people need to interact with government online. So we should do less and focus on tasks.

Since people generally only interact with government when they have to government websites are a very different proposition from consumer facing destination-sites. We should minimise the time people have to spend on a gov.uk site. Minimal faff.

People frequently have a particular issue they want to resolve (find out about Cold Winter Payments, register for VAT, report a beached whale) so we should help them find the quick do and put tools before content so people don’t have to wade through pages of text to find the right link to register for this or that service.

As a result category pages, such as ‘everything todo with benefits’, become much less useful – hierarchy and send a confused message to search engines (see more of that below) so we should never assume hierarchies and only use them where there are two overlapping user needs such as ‘redundancy for employers’ vs ‘redundancy for employees’.

It was obvious that the best solution for a given user task would vary from task to task -
sometimes the answer might be a single table (e.g. what is the minimum wage), other times it might be a custom app that finds your nearest registrars office. So the site should be consistent, not uniform and we should aim to fix a single need at a time with the best available solution.

Having a user-base of all the entire adult population of a country it is easy to fall into the trap of piling loads of caveats upfront, making sure that every last edge-case is dealt with upfront before allowing anyone to progress. e.g. there are more people wanting to take a standard driving test than an HGV one, more people get made redundant than have to make someone redundant, so we should optimise for the common case.

The start of any process, be it linking to a local council to pay your council tax, booking a driving test, or reading a guide to exporting goods should set clear expectations upfront.

Since for the vast majority of people their web journeys (finding out the date of the next bank-holiday, or reporting a lost passport) start with a search engine rather than a direct visit we should think of Google as the homepage and we should also feed Google, Bing and other search engines nice friendly urls.

If someone is just landing at a page on your site then it’s helpful to start thinking of every visit being a new user, assuming they have no prior knowledge of the structure or content website they have landed at.

Similarly, there should be no need for a user to understand government to interact with it. Government (especially given the maturity of the British constitution) and the services it provides are often complicated, so we should hide complexity where possible.

For example tools and content should be Location aware – once a user’s location is known it can be used to surface the most relevant content and to tailor services.

Similarly with branding – design should be neutral be the government online, not a new brand or collection of silos that require extra understanding from the user.

Given it has 3.5% UK market share and Microsoft are trying to persuade everyone to shift off it, we assumed IE6 is dead (actually, we were a tad ruder than that). Finally, we should be device agnostic, not lowest common denominator.


We certainly haven’t stuck to these rules dogmatically, but they have been a good guide through the build process and hopefully have helped us build a (more tightly defined) user centred product.

24 comments

  1. Adrian Short

    In many cases you might want to think about answer engines rather than search engines, e.g. find a specific answer to a question, rather than find a list of documents that might contain the specific answer to a question.

    If your content is sufficiently granular this might amount to the same thing.

    What are you doing about writing copy? The value of high-quality textual content is often overlooked, especially in transactional interfaces where it’s often written hasily by the designers/developers rather than given specific attention.

    A style guide for language might be a useful tool in your project. e.g. never say “local authority” when you can say “council”, etc.

    Reply
    • Peter Jordan

      Most of the principles are founded on evidence, particularly that from search analytics which show that people mainly want an answer/solution or do something. So as you say, focused, stand alone, granular content provides a way forward and makes search easier to manage. But you still need to cater for people with more general info needs – so guides is an approach to this.

      Disclaimer – I provided the search analytics insight to alphagov and input to these principles

      Reply
    • Pete C

      The best “answer engine” I’ve seen is Cambridge-based http://trueknowledge.com – open linked data at its finest.

      Reply
  2. James

    Thanks for sharing these;

    Well done for taking a stand with “IE 6 is dead” – are you ignoring it altogether, or serving something like Universal IE CSS?
    Was there any pushback from gov departments – it’s easy to imagine f them being part of the 3.5%, by having old, horrible proprietorial IE builds for some reason.

    “Spin is trust”?

    Reply
  3. Tom Szekeres

    Really excited about seeing it in action next week, and great to see that you’ll be ditching IE6 (ignore the pushback!). To what extent is your keyword research looking at (say) tools offered by leading search engines? I can quite easily imagine there are a number of queries for which, even worse than being buried in lengthy text or complex hierarchy, the answers don’t yet exist in the plethora of .gov.uk subdomains. How do we stop those users from giving up (or calling up, or turning up)?

    Reply
  4. glynwintle

    IE6 should die, I agree, but you need to get Gov to stop using it first. ”;!–”=

    Reply
    • Tom Szekeres

      Wouldn’t the best way to do this be to press ahead regardless? Zero tolerance for the laggards…

      Reply
    • Simon Dickson

      If Alphagov is about demonstrating sound principles – of design, user experience, etc etc, then I have no problem whatsoever if it is seen to do ‘The Right Thing’ on browser support.

      The official advice from the Get Safe Online site (founding sponsor: HM Government) is quite clear: ‘The first thing to do is to make sure you’re using the latest version of the Internet Explorer. We recommend running the latest version because it includes many security features that were not present in previous versions.’

      Plus, frankly, any time spent making it work well on IE6 is time that could otherwise have been spent making it work better for everyone else.

      Reply
  5. Richard Carter

    A great write-up, made for an interesting read. I agree with Adrian’s comment above regarding a language style guide – is this something you’re working on/considering?

    (PS, spotted a spelling mistake: “taylor” should be “tailor” above)

    Reply
  6. Matthew

    Relly is the content strategist for this site according to its Meet the team page, and on Twitter she said recently: “Editing a small slew of blog posts. This is where having a styleguide already is awesome. #alphagov”. So yes, they must have one, and are clearly thinking about copy.

    Reply
  7. Paul Annett

    I’ll answer on Relly’s behalf, as she’s currently on a flight to the States where she’s speaking at Confab and Web Directions Unplugged.

    She has developed a style guide for content, although not all content in the prototype has been written by our editorial folk, so it doesn’t always fit our house style.

    For example, the sections we term ‘guides’ have had a lot of content brought across from Directgov. Time has been spent massaging these into a new structure and heavily editing them for length, but they have not been re-written so the tone-of-voice isn’t based on our style guide.

    For the prototype, this is fine.

    Reply
  8. links for 2011-05-08 :: Blog :: Headshift

    [...] A few design rules for alpha.gov.uk | Alpha.gov.uk – team blog (tags: design ucd tasks) [...]

    Reply
  9. Neil Powers

    How do you resolve your bold decision to drop IE6 support with Central Office of Information (COI) advice to support all browsers with a 2% or more share. Central Office of Information (COI) http://coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=216

    I guess this will be more of an issue once you move into a production phase

    Reply
    • davidmann

      Neil – IE6′s market share is roughly 2.9% and falling. Also, given Microsoft themselves are encouraging users away from IE6, we believe this is the right thing to do. From a more practical point of view, as this is an Alpha, the time spent optimising for IE6 made little sense given the tight deadline we have been working to. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  10. refugeek

    As a web designer/developer myself I can understand the reasoning behind not supporting IE 6 for the purposes of the Alpha. Would this be addressed if the site was to go beyond an Alpha, even if it was just to provide a universal style sheet?

    I have been working on government websites for several years and have had drummed into me the importance of ensuring such sites are accessible and inclusive for all, not just those using modern browsers. Even if the market share for IE 6 is falling and Microsoft want rid of it I am not sure (just yet at least) you can reconcile the idea of creating a single government website for everyone in the UK on the one hand with the decision not to support IE6 on the other. Some companies and alot of government departments still use IE6 and don’t have the option within those environments to upgrade. The site may not be designed for government employees but they are all citizens as well and should have the right of equal access. I think trying to force people to upgrade, even if it is for their own good, goes against this principle.

    Reply
  11. Fraser Pearce

    The ‘IE6 is dead’ statement slightly erodes what is otherwise an excellent blog post.

    I don’t think you can assume any browser is ‘dead’ especially in the case of a site that by its very definition has to be for everyone (in the UK). It shouldn’t be about the browser, or the device.

    I’m not advocating explicitly supporting IE6, but you should (as I very much expect you are) be creating something that is designed to work for everyone, but takes advantage of the best technology that is exposed to it – i.e. the progressive enhancement approach.

    Reply
  12. Richard Brill

    Agree with Fraser here and as Richard states in this post, making a website work on as many different platforms/browsers/devices as possible (especially a Government site) is essential to keep from alienating users.

    I think it would be wise (and I would apply this to any new website) to gently persuade users to update from Internet Explorer 6 and finally lay the beast to rest.

    Reply
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