Shipping new formats: the GOV.UK ‘international trade’ release

In the spirit of iteration and continuous delivery today we are releasing a number of new tools and content items, and as usual we'd like your feedback. Neil Williams, Product Manager at GDS explains the latest release on GOV.UK.

Today sees another release for GOV.UK, delivering a new specialist guidance format, an improved Trade Tariff tool and a consignment of content items to meet the needs of people thinking about or already involved in importing or exporting goods and services.

Why today’s release is significant

This is the first time we have begun binding together different layers of related content on GOV.UK in order to test out user journeys between the introductory content aimed at everyone (for example this introduction to importing) and more specific, technical material for those who need to get down into the detail (for example this guide to exporting certain controlled goods).

It’s also the first outing for the specialist guidance format where this detailed material can be found. Specialist guidance was absent from our earlier beta releases and it is a key component of the overall GOV.UK product. More about this new format below.

Thirdly, we’re introducing the first public iteration of an improved tool, the UK Trade Tariff, which aims to take away some of the complexity for people needing to look up EU commodity codes and other customs information when importing or exporting goods. We’ll be explaining more about this tool in a separate post later this week.

What we mean by specialist guidance

We’re defining this format as the detailed guidance which government has a duty to provide. It’s the ‘long tail’ of government content meeting highly specialised user needs - for example, the needs people have when classifying aircraft parts or exporting electromagnetic devices.

Separation of user need infographic

As we start to move departmental websites across to GOV.UK you’ll see lots more of this kind of content, such as statutory guidance about education and children’s services from DFE, and guidance for people working within the justice system from MOJ.

The word ‘specialist’ is intended to refer to the material, not necessarily the users, although in this part of GOV.UK we assume the user may have some prior knowledge or expertise, or at least a willingness to grapple with unfamiliar words and concepts.

The source material tends to be long form text content, and so we’ve focused our design approach on providing a good reading experience on devices of any size.

We’ve also tried to make it clearly distinct from other GOV.UK formats. Through the use of a traditionally corporate colour, the ‘specialist guidance’ label and prominently placed logos from government organisations responsible for producing the guidance, we hope that it will be immediately clear to users what kind of content this is and if it’s useful to them, irrespective of whether they land on it from Google or another part of GOV.UK. We also provide clear links to related introductory content for people who want something a bit less detailed.

Feedback and user testing

As ever, this release is a beta. We know there are gaps, which we will address by adding to and improving the content and product features in the coming weeks.

We’re releasing this now because we want to learn how people move between different formats and how they use the Trade Tariff tool. We'll be doing several rounds of structured user testing using qualitative and quantitative methods to help us make these new features and content items better.

We’d also love your feedback to help us work out out what needs to be improved. Tell us what you think in the comments or by sending us an email.


  1. Matt Tooke

    Really like this. A sensible and user-centred way of dealing with 'the irreducible core' where you've got a niche audience to address or a legal obligation to publish.

    So is this a subset of the top (mainstream) user needs you design for or is this an additional bunch? If the latter have these been driven by any analysis of the 'less important but still necessary' stuff or are you simply finding statutory content that has to be surfaced somewhere as information is moved over from the other government sites?

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    • Neil Williams

      Thanks Matt, glad you like it. It's the latter - largely a migration of content from the other government sites, although we do intend over time to improve and rationalise the content as well.

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  3. Tony Gilbert

    Hi Neal, I would be interested in your UX findings around use of very long pages (like 'Exporting certain controlled goods') vs multi-page guides. Do you find users prefer to see all the essential detail in one page, regardless of length? Or are there certain cases where multi-page may perform better than long page and vice versa?

    Also, have you seen your left menu on these pages in Firefox? Looks a bit strange...

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    • Neil Williams

      We're very interested to learn about that too Tony. We'll share results of our testing. It's my hunch that people will prefer to see it all on one page. We have in mind to also add a 'find within this guide' tool for those who don't know how to do that in their browsers. Thanks re Firefox, - we have tested in all browsers but something may have changed, we'll go back and check again.

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  4. Graham Lee

    This is more like selling old wine in new bottles, given that all of the 'new' guides have been copied word-for-word from Business Link..

    However you dress this up, this doesn’t make for an improvement on the previous offering.

    For example, is there any excuse for long and convoluted sentences like the following?:

    “The European Union’s (EU’s) Export Control System (ECS), electronically controls indirect exports and was built onto CHIEF in the UK so, in most circumstances, there is no requirement to submit a separate safety and security declaration, as a CHIEF Export Declaration contains the additional ECS fields.”

    This clearly breaks the GOV.UK style guide rules on plain English, and seems to confirm the old programmers' adage 'rubbish in, rubbish out'.

    An additional problem is that a lot of the content doesn't make sense out of context - eg some pages refer to guides that haven't been moved over to the new site.

    The creation of the new single domain presents a great opportunity to knock this specialist info - from Business Link, departmental sites and elsewhere - into shape and offer something better. This cut and paste job therefore seems like a bit of a cop-out. It also seems unnecessary, if this information will in any event be available for perpetuity on the National Archives website.

    If the content is still the same, there seems little point in commenting on the font used, the colour of the text or which logos you stick on the page.

    However, I'm not sure what the rationale for giving the names of departments above the title of each guide, along with the Royal coat of arms. Varney pointed out six years ago that "people rarely identify themselves as being customers of a particular government service" and that issues often "cut across departmental responsibilities". I believe that's why we don't identify the responsible departments in the mainstream section of the site.

    The specialist home page similarly assumes that users will search in the first instance by organisation, which should be tested with users. Searching by topic may be less useful, if 'trade and investment' alone produces five pages of results. Keyword searches seem to work much better, so you may want to make this field more prominent.

    Hopefully the content on the pages is just dummy text, like Lorem Ipsum, so we can ensure the format does deliver on the GOV.UK promise for 'simpler, clearer, faster' services and information next time around, as opposed to the 'harder, murkier, slower' content in this test product.

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    • Neil Williams

      This is a fair criticism. If we had all the time and money in the world we would of course rewrite and rationalise all of this content as we go along, but the reality is we have deadlines and budgets and there is a staggering amount of content that we need to work through.

      We care deeply about the quality of the user experience, and having moved it to GOV.UK we will be making improvements to content over time. We will also be using data and user feedback to see how well every item of content is performing so we can prioritise which content needs most urgent attention.

      The issues you mention about links to guides that haven't moved across are all being worked through too.

      I believe what we have done here does already improve on the existing offer, by categorising this material as specialist guidance (making it clearer to users what it is) and creating a way to present all such material, from right across government, in a consistent way and in one place. Thats' a huge leap forward from the current situation.

      The use of organisation names does two things:
      - indicates that this is 'official' material produced by specific parts of government, to distance it from the mainstream content aimed at everyone. We intend that it's deliberately offputting (for those who find the names of government bodies offputting!); and reassuring for those who need to know they're reading the official, definitive guidance
      - while we absolutely start from the position that people shouldn't need to know which bit of government does what when they start their journey, we also want to make the workings of government transparent and help people on their onward journey around the site to related material.

      When the Inside Government bit of GOV.UK is live, this will start to hang together more and help people to explore government information, by topic or organisation or both. The 'homepage' for specialist guidance isn't going to be the main way we expect people to find this material - we expect they will find it via the organisation (eg teachers go to the DFE website now for this stuff; farmers to DEFRA...) or by topic (eg schools; food and farming), by following links from related mainstream content, and through search. "Google is the homepage" is a phrase you may have heard us use a few times before.

      Thanks for responding. We won't waste the opportunity to improve this stuff, but it is going to take us a little longer.

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  5. Graham Lee

    Thanks Neil.

    I don't think we want to put people off!

    There is a danger of being too conservative, and assuming that because people have traditionally found this guidance via departmental websites they will still search by organisation once it's been moved to a big single domain. If that were the case, Business Link and Directgov would never have been created. And GOV.UK has a similar rationale to those sites, to put users first, provide a consistent user experience and get over the fragmentation of government info, which is currently surfaced in departmental silos. If I remember correctly, the site was originally supposed to represent a 'revolution' rather than an 'evolution' in government web publishing for that very reason.

    My experience of working on departmental sites has been that people search intuitively by subject area, not organisation, and are more interested in practical guidance than the corporate PR, so making this information available via Inside Government could be to hide one's light under a bushel.

    I understand your difficulties in having to cut corners, but we do need to maintain the high standards established by GOV.UK to date, and cutting and pasting content from existing sources will compromise the integrity of the entire project.

    Why should officials accept the need to make information web-friendly and accessible if they can just label it 'specialist' and get it in through the back door? Will the style guide and editorial safeguards not apply to this content?

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    • Neil Williams

      This isn't quite right, Graham. We aren't being conservative at all.

      We are bringing nearly 500 websites together into a single site and grouping everything they produce into a topic-based navigation, completely removing the need to browse by organisation. Please don't confuse the fact that the organisation's name appears on the page with any idea that we are forcing people to navigate in that way, or to know or care which organisation does what. That is the very opposite of what we are doing.

      Having said that, we are not removing the ability to navigate by organisation for people who still want to do that. Far from assuming people will continue to want to find things by organisation, we know for a fact that they will. See this post about the results of our user testing on the Inside Government beta:

      And we are not cutting any corners or lowering standards. We are releasing this early, improving on what went before, and continuing to work hard (in GDS and in the owning departments - HMRC, BIS and UKTI) to overhaul the content.

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  6. Tony Gilbert

    I think the point Graham Lee might have wanted to make is that in a site of the size you are creating here, usability and content quality are only two of the success factors you need to control. Perhaps far more challenging is "findability" of content, but also the inconsistent user experience of bringing in so much content from a variety of different sites with different editorial standards. We did some work on this last year, looking at over 20,000 topics from 25 websites to bring into a portal site.

    Findability is a challenging issue for you and I'd like to hear more about your plan to address this. When you create a single entry point for government, ipso facto you are mixing up many different audience groups, many different user needs, many different comprehension levels, different expectations, etc. Plus you have to get past the user paradigm of "I used to know how to find this, but now it's all changed!".

    Search is a great way to enhance findability on very large websites, but you cannot rely entirely on search as there'll always be a significant percentage of users who don't want to search, or will only search as a last resort. Also, you will presumably have a very large (maybe 50-60% audience group who will search using only Google, and land at what Google thinks is the right point in your website - maybe it is, maybe Google just thinks it is. For example, can Google really differentiate between the many types of taxes?

    Aside from search, there is the obvious question of IA structure. While only 20-30% of users will ever wade through your IA, it needs to be logical for that group. It also needs to be logical from the point of view of making sure future content (especially that which you could not plan for) lands in the right place on the site.

    Are you able to share the thinking in this space? Are you going "semantic"? If so, how far? And how has that tested with users (ours found it a bit confronting).

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