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Smart answers are smart

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design, GOV.UK, Technology

Inherent to the content strategy of the citizen beta of GOV.UK is hiding complexity and building tools before writing content. Much of the detail of government policy is difficult for normal folk to grasp and understand - and the proposition of GOV.UK is that they shouldn't have to.

Smart answers are a great tool for content designers to present complex information in a quick and simple way. Defining what they are - decision trees? calculators? tools? is immaterial - what they do is provide a reusable technical framework to build a quick and simple answer to a complex question.

Can you get maternity pay?

Maternity pay entitlement is a perfect example of a thorny answer to the popular question - do I qualify for maternity pay? Presented as flat content it becomes a impenetrable quagmire of: "if this then that, except when that, and not before this, but maybe because of that, except if you're this…[with extra caveats added]."

The first stage of creating a smart answer (or any custom tool on GOV.UK) is analysis. Working with David Heath, the developer behind our smart answer framework, we established the defining variables - baby's due date, employment status and details, and income. With these facts elicited in the first quick questions, David wrote the logic to generate the correct answer whilst hiding the complex calculations (thus removing the requirement for content such as "the 15th week before the start of the week in which your baby is due"). He'll be writing a post about the technology soon.

Dev + content = awesome

The partnership of content designer and developer on smart answers demonstrates the oft-fabled multidisciplinary agile approach we employ at GDS, where we work in pairs wherever possible. Researching the subject, working out the logic and moulding this with technical wizardry (at the same time writing great microcopy as we went along) meant the smart answer was devised and built in hours.

With the help and patience of the developers I've made and committed copy changes (and the odd simple logic change). This autonomy eliminates the tedious and soul-sapping back-and-forth with scribbled corrections or emailed lists of changes which is all so time consuming.

Detailed simplicity

Smart answers drive people to the quick answer they crave - without bombarding them with eligibility requirements and reams of detail for exceptions. People who want to learn more about the detail of eligibility still can in the guides to Statutory Maternity Pay and Maternity Allowance.

Lisa Scott (@lisascott869) is a content designer at GDS.

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  1. Comment by Steve Holden posted on

    Might I suggest a change from "normal folk" to "most of us". This sounds much more inclusive, and less like an elite group of technologists is looking down on the normal folk who can't do complex stuff.

  2. Comment by The 10 UX principle behind GOV.UK « Sailfish Media posted on

    [...] Do the hard work to make it simple. Focus your energies on making the hard tasks (finding out about maternity pay entitlement for example) easy by using content formats such as the government ‘Smart Answer.’ [...]

  3. Comment by StJohn Hawkins posted on

    Do you have plans for an "admin module" for Smart Answers that will emancipate business users (within the context of a robust content delivery/deployment workflow) to make enhancements and changes without the need for dev input?

  4. Comment by Breaking down walls: designing in browser | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] some of which will develop into the product, some of which will be discarded. For example, on Smart Answers, we we created many potential paper prototypes before getting to the final one which then went into [...]

  5. Comment by Will Callaghan (@willguv) posted on

    I really the pairing of content + dev. It's something I've been trying to do in the private sector for ages.

    Could each pair recruit a few representative users so you can get quick testing and results into the mix? Content + dev + users = v awesome

  6. Comment by Smart answers post on Government Digital Service | Service Delivery in Government posted on

    [...] item on the Government Digital Service site, Smart answers are smart discusses how one of the aims of is the presentation of complex information in a simple [...]

  7. Comment by Lara MacGregor posted on

    You need to start tailoring content to specific user groups rather than 'every adult in the uk'. Maternity benefits are vastly different from bin collections or car tax. Why force them to have the smae look and feel and (lack of) navigation? You seem to be allowing pseudoscience into your design and testing.

    The calculator is useable but very limited; if I have a query or complaint, who do I take it up with? Jobcentre plus? My employer?

    Start engaging with the rest of the public sector, please.

    • Replies to Lara MacGregor>

      Comment by Lisa Scott posted on

      Thanks Lara. We've aimed this tool at expectant parents wanting to navigate the complexities of maternity pay entitlement.

      Re: the design - we've made this tool look like the 'quick answers' as this is what people can expect from using it.

      What do you think of the 'next steps' at the end of the tool? This is how we've been pointing people on to what they need to do next.

      Good point re: complaining or querying - this is covered in the guides to maternity pay and we need to drive people to that content if they have those kind of search queries.

      • Replies to Lisa Scott>

        Comment by Lara MacGregor posted on

        I'm afraid your work is based on flat-earth assumptions. You're persevering with 'Public services all in one place' as a design principle even though this reduces the usability of each individual service.

        You could mitigate the problems in this particular instance by offering consistent navigation options (the pages which cover maternity benefits) on the left-hand side; anthing which makes this corner of resemble a website designed around the needs of prospective parents. 'Next steps' at the end of this calculator assumes that customers are going to use this tool in a linear fashion and can't be trusted with any other navigation options. If you design around users needs, you'll probably come up with a bespoke design including a proper IA.

        As an experiment, try building a run-of-the mill html website about maternity benefits and run A/B testing with GOV.UK to find out which one actual prospective parents prefer.

  8. Comment by baragouiner posted on

    Ro'n i'n mynd i dynnu sylw at y problem Stefan - felly diolch am y ddolen Dafydd.

    Agree that this tool looks useful and clean. Only usability flaw I found was that after answering the four questions, if I want to edit question one then I have to re-enter the following three answers *even if they don't need changing*. Very frustrating as a user!

    • Replies to baragouiner>

      Comment by David Heath posted on


      it's a good suggestion and I did consider doing that when I implemented the system.

      Technically it would be possible to re-use answers provided that you follow the same branch of logic. However, bear in mind that the flow through the questions could branch at any point due to the response given. So if you change your answer to question 1, your answers to questions 2,3,4 and 5 may no longer be relevant.

      The logic to do those checks seemed to me to be quite complex relative to the user benefit. I based that on the guesstimate that the likelihood of a real user wanting to make a correction to a question very far back in the flow would be relatively low (the probability of needing to make a correction might drop off the further back through the questions you go). In other words, you might notice you made a mistake 1 or 2 questions back, but it would be less likely you get to the end and then suddenly decide you got the first question wrong.

      Do you think my assumption was reasonable?


      • Replies to David Heath>

        Comment by Sam posted on

        I think your assumption is reasonable!

        It's inescapable with any dendritic interactive tool - you can go back up the same branch but if you want to start from an earlier point you'll have to reanswer the subsequent questions.

        Nice to see that the code continues to be available to the community. Any plans to develop WordPress plugins for future govt microsites serving specialist audiences (eg doctors, teachers, charities)?

  9. Comment by Alexis Cleveland posted on

    Good start. I tried a number of scenarios and the entitlement calculator worked each time. However, better if there were more links between the data I entered and the answers given. For example:
    • information about the rate of benefit over simplistic and not linked to the average amount I entered into the system;
    • having input an expected date of birth in the entitlement calculator this did not carry through to the maternity planner.
    Prettier than DirectGov, easier to use but we ought to be able to make a further step change in customer data driven personalised information.
    How is this being linked to benefit systems in JobcentrePlus? Are you aiming for a single front end that users can use for information, make a claim and track its progress?

    • Replies to Alexis Cleveland>

      Comment by Lisa Scott posted on

      Thanks Alexis - excellent suggestions about linking up the data and making it work with the planner.

      Agree re: the rate of benefit - calculating the amount based on the previous answers would be great.

      This iteration of the tool focused on determining eligibility for the different types of maternity pay - these suggestions are great for the next step.

      Re: linking up Jobcentre Plus benefits systems - we'll have to look at the purpose of this tool once the DWP benefits management services are released.

  10. Comment by Stefan Czerniawski posted on

    Great post and great process - but I can't help being amused that due dates can range from 2007 to 2017. More seriously, there is no sense/error checking on the result, so putting in a past date still results in an instruction to tell the employer 28 days in advance, and putting in a sufficiently future date gets muddled tenses on "Did you start your current job...". But rather than fixing those, wouldn't it be better to constrain inputs to be gestationally plausible?

  11. Comment by Sharon Battley posted on

    It feels usable and the copy is much tighter, but it's not very innovative. There's been a function on Directgov - albeit creaky - that's been doing much the same thing for the last four years:

    It's a huge improvement but not ground-breaking.

    • Replies to Sharon Battley>

      Comment by Lisa Scott posted on

      Thanks Sharon - you're absolutely right - we've built on the work already live on Directgov. The big difference lies in the flexibility of the technology behind the tool and our ability to iterate rapidly (in hours) on any changes.

      What do you think of the changes we've made to the Maternity Leave planning tool?:

      • Replies to Lisa Scott>

        Comment by Clinton posted on

        Testing on quickly leads to a page not found, is the tool non-operational now?

        • Replies to Clinton>

          Comment by James Stewart posted on

          We've been doing some maintenance over the weekend. It should be up and running again properly next week.

  12. Comment by Nomad (@riverluss) posted on

    I've already asked @nicepaul for this once before but I will say it again just to reiterate. With GOV.UK you have a great chance to present the public with clear guides to the Mental Capacity Act and the Mental Health Act.

    Current government information is scattered all over the place and the charity web sites are harder than they should be. Please remember - the people who really need this information are in crisis. They are service users and carers. They are ordinary members of the public and they generally do not have a prior knowledge of law in this area.

    This site will be read by people who are facing loss of liberty. Government owes it to the public to give clear information on such an important matter. Sadly hospital staff do not always give you a full picture of your rights and here I speak from experience. GOV.UK could perform a real service if content designers and developers made the effort to see things from the point of view of service users and carers. With the launch of a new site you have a chance to think afresh. Please use this opportunity.

    • Replies to Nomad (@riverluss)>

      Comment by Lisa Scott posted on

      Hello - absolutely, making the complexities of government clear and simple and understandable for everyone is right at the heart of what we're doing with GOV.UK.

      With the specific examples you've mentioned, this content is on the NHS Choices website. We do have content on mental capacity and the law, eg: and - what do you think about the clarity of these guides?