A few minutes ago we released the first phase of the beta test of GOV.UK - the next step on the journey towards a single domain for central government. As Mike Bracken, HMG Executive Director for Digital said, our aim is to deliver simpler, clearer, faster services for users and savings and innovation for Government.
This journey started with Martha Lane Fox’s report demanding that Government 'revolutionise' its online services, and Francis Maude’s affirmative reply on behalf of the Government. The Government Digital Service (GDS) was formed as a result, and soon launched an experimental prototype of GOV.UK (alpha.gov.uk - now closed).
The beta of single domain was given the go-ahead in August 2011. There are three phases:
- Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of GOV.UK.
- Private beta test of a shared GOV.UK ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments.
- A first draft of a GOV.UK ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single GOV.UK domain. (see BBC.co.uk/gel for an example).
Today we have released the first phase. The second is on track to be released in a few weeks, with the third set fair for the end of March.
This post will give you lots of background about this phase of the beta. It’s going to be long. We’re sorry about that, but there’s a lot to say. If you prefer, you can take a quick tour of the beta.
Background and Directgov
The GOV.UK beta builds on years of work and learning across government and outside it about how to deliver great services to users. In the first instance it is designed to replace the content you’ll currently find at Directgov. Directgov is a tremendous achievement and has consistently delivered huge value to its 30m+ visitors each month. However it is now 8 years old - an eternity in web years - and the user experience it offers is showing its age.
It’s important to remember though - GOV.UK is just a beta test. It is not finished and may not be accurate and completely up to date - if you’ve got actual business to conduct with Government you should continue do it via Directgov.
What we’ve done
We have re-written, re-designed and re-thought 667 of the needs people have of Government (broadly, those currently catered for by Directgov) - making them as findable, understandable and actionable as we can. We’ve built a scalable, modular open source technology platform to support them, we’ve designed the user experience around them and we’ve worked with colleagues across many departments to fact-check them. Through designing and iterating these we’ve got the templates and techniques we need to support a whole host more needs - either written by ourselves or others.
What we’ve not done
- A handful of really significant citizen needs are still on our 'to do' list (applying for your passport, job search, travel advice etc.)
- Search always needs improving. Synonyms, misspellings and auto-complete, for instance, will benefit input from real users.
- Browsing - the site is currently optimised for search, browsing by section needs more work.
- For some more complex 'needs' we’ve written a guide when actually a step-by-step answer might be better. We'll get to these shortly.
- The redesign of transactions, or government gateway, will take time. Keep an eye on this blog for updates.
There are two big areas for development: further design iteration and wider, deeper content.
First, iteration: we’re going to be looking at your feedback, observing user behaviour and doing loads of testing to see how we can improve the experience of the site. Expect lots of design elements to change, features to appear and disappear and various aspects of the site to be tightened up and refined.
Second, content: there are huge swathes of government information and services that we haven’t dealt with yet. Content which explains what each Government department does is coming soon in the second phase of the beta (we use the term ‘corporate’ as a shorthand for this). And information of special interest to businesses will follow in the second half of the year. And, as yet, we’ve not scratched the surface of improving the service design/user experience of transactions nor the vast corpus of specialist and technical content that government publishes for lawyers, accountants and the like.
How it was built
We’ve used a small team of designers, developers and managers supplemented by micro-businesses when we need particular specialist skills. We’re using open software and tools as much as possible, and developing in the open. The site is hosted in the cloud. Our processes are iterative and agile, we have daily stand-ups and our walls are covered in whiteboards and post-it notes. Which is possibly just a lot of jargon to you. What it means is - we’re building GOV.UK the way Google build Google and Amazon build Amazon.
Who we should thank
- All the critical friends and pioneers from inside and outside government gathered at places like GovCamp and on blogs and twitter.
- All the departments and colleagues who’ve helped and supported our sometimes unreasonable requests.
- Martha Lane Fox, UK Digital Champion, and Francis Maude, Minister for Cabinet Office, for their steadfast support.
What we ask of you
Primarily, ultimately, most importantly, this is a beta and for a beta to succeed it needs your feedback. So, please, go look at the site, have a play and tell us what you think - the good, the bad, the disastrous, the brilliant. The best way to do that is via our Get Satisfaction site, we’ll be answering questions there and you’ll be able to see what others think. Or you can comment below, tweet at us on @GovUK or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Finding out more
We hope you find it useful, and ask you to tell us if not.
Tom Loosemore is leading the development of this phase of the GOV.UK beta