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Exploring user needs

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GOV.UK

As we build up to the release of GOV.UK next week, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the big idea behind GOV.UK.

As ever, it all starts with users.

Finding out what users need

Back when we first started to explore how a single website for government might take shape, we analysed every single piece of information published on Directgov and, later on, Business Link. We used the pages themselves as well as the search terms used to find and define what questions and demands those sites were trying to meet.

Composite of 4 pictures of the beta team working on needs
Beta team working on needs in 2011

We then had to work out which of these we should actually be answering - the genuine "user needs" rather than the information that people don't actually want or need from the government. We worked very closely with our colleagues in other government departments and devolved administrations to work out which user needs that GOV.UK should satisfy.

"How do I renew my passport application?", "When's the next bank holiday?", "How do I apply for lasting power of attorney?" - these are the questions and demands that people have of government. Users need access to public services, information about their rights and obligations, and information about aspects of life in the UK for which the government is the canonical source of information.

We took the approach that government should do what only government can do - focus on the "irreducible core" and focus on what users need us to publish.

How do you meet a user’s need?

As we started the work of replacing Business Link and Directgov we were pretty ruthless about meeting users needs. The criteria for determining whether to declare something as a user need were formally adopted by departmental digital leaders earlier this year.

Those criteria say “It’s in if...”

  • It’s something that only the government does
  • There is clear demand for it from users (ie. through search and traffic logs) or the government is legally obliged to provide it
  • It’s something that people can do or it’s something people need to know before they can do something that’s regulated by / related to the government
  • It’s something the government provides, does or pays for
  • It’s inherent to a person’s or an organisation’s rights and obligations
  • It’s straightforward advice that helps people to comply with their statutory obligations (eg. what records you should keep for your HMRC tax return) or provides certain kinds of advice and support to businesses, but excludes general life or business advice that is provided by third parties

Focus on the common case (but don't forget about the "edge cases")

Because we were starting with these new user needs we couldn't just replicate the content from Business Link and Directgov; we had to create new pages and tools that met the needs we had identified.

In building these, we’re making sure that we optimise for the most common cases. We’ll include detailed information whenever appropriate, but not at the expense of a simpler, clearer and faster experience for the majority of our users.

For example, we know from search data that most people looking up bank holiday dates are looking for the next bank holiday, so we display that information really clearly. Then underneath, for people who need it, we’ve included information the rest of the bank holiday dates for this year and the next.

Bank Holidays page
Bank Holidays page

It’s an example we’ve used a few times, but it’s a good one - thousands of people look for this information every single day. Later this week I’ll tell you a bit more about how we’re addressing the needs of businesses in particular.

What next for user needs?

By the time we go live we’ll be meeting around 2,000 identified user needs. They’re all different, all of them catering directly to the demands we know that people and businesses have of government services online.

But we know more will emerge over time. We’re constantly monitoring and testing how people respond to GOV.UK, and feeding that data back into the website to make it better. We’ll also continue to work closely with departments as their digital teams analyse and articulate new user needs and act as a vital “expert link” between GDS and their department in the months and years ahead.

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  1. Comment by Carolyn Moses posted on

    I can only reiterate the many other people's comments that Business Link was such a valuable tool for small business owners like myself who have occasional need for unbiased advice on employment contracts, pension reform, employer responsibilities. I dread to think of all the SMEs over the coming months who try to find the detailed advice they used to get on Busiess Link and instead find this blog lamenting it's loss. Surely all this wealth of information and advice can't just be allowed to disappear??????

    • Replies to Carolyn Moses>

      Comment by Jane posted on

      This saying springs to mind - Why keep things simple and useful (as in business link) when with a bit of effort, you (in goverment offices)can make things nigh on impossible for the users. I have wasted an hour so far working my way through this blog only to find that the taxes I pay are being wasted on this idiocy

      • Replies to Jane>

        Comment by Steve posted on

        I tried to look up Business Link for details of local workshops and cannot believe that all the excellent website content etc, has been removed and replaced with this poor offering! This really is a loss to the small business community.

  2. Comment by Dragon City posted on

    Hopefully we are taking a great deal of care to ensure that information and user journeys are not being designed in isolation from real user needs.

  3. Comment by raybackjoe posted on

    Please are you able to tell me who expressly came up with the theory which one group of people in some kind of office can work out all the things which people across the nation from each of the different contexts might possibly want to know. It is intensely arrogant and a representative of centralised State administration centered thinking. It will not work for what I require! Which minister possess been accountable for this excellent?

    • Replies to raybackjoe>

      Comment by paulclarke posted on

      Hopefully we are taking a great deal of care to ensure that information and user journeys are not being designed in isolation from real user needs. Insight and research work is done to establish needs and priorities, and as digital products are developed they are tested, continually, with real users to ensure they do actually make a difference.

  4. Comment by Wes posted on

    I concur. This was a great tool, and now I find myself with no alternative, and no real knowledge of how to frame a good, legal agreement for employment. I do have the couple of agreements that were generated by the tool in editable format (word docs), but they aren't blank, and are specific to the type of employment that applied in those instances. I now need different agreements, and I will have no confidence that my edits are appropriate for other types of employment.

  5. Comment by Anne Taylor posted on

    I have just been looking for the statement of employment wizard that used to be on the business link website (along with a lot of other very useful stuff). All I can find is a .pdf template, which I can't update with the software we have. So instead of being able to create a statement of employment simply, and keep it in electronic format for updating, I now have to fill a form out by hand. How is this progress or have I missed something?

    • Replies to Anne Taylor>

      Comment by ejhp posted on

      Hi Anne

      Although the written statement of employment wizard on BusinessLink was used by a few people, it actually had a 90% drop-out rate - the PDF template was downloaded and used by many more people than the wizard. I'm sorry that the PDF isn't suitable for your needs - I will check whether there's also an editable version in RTF or Microsoft Word format that we could make available.

      Kind regards

      Etienne Pollard
      GOV.UK Programme Director

      • Replies to ejhp>

        Comment by Tim Manning posted on

        Again, I think there has been an over reliance on historical usage patterns for 'Business Link'. More insight required, to fully understand the nature of demand and the role of within this. Taking this example, it could just be that the Wizard wasn't very good, or people where not very 'digital'...

        • Replies to Tim Manning>

          Comment by Anne Taylor posted on

          Thanks for the responses. Yes please, an editable version would be a big help. In the absence of that I'll just do my own although that does seem a step backwards.
          I still don't see why a good tool would be removed even if only used by a few people, if no alternative is in place. Surely the thing to do would be to introduce the new version before removing the old?

        • Replies to Tim Manning>

          Comment by James Burnham posted on

          I have to say that I agree with many of the comments above relating the demise of the Business Link website.
          Owning a small business, I was not necessarily a very heavy user of this site, but I did find it an invaluable source of information and advice that was aimed directly at people in my situation.
          The Statement of Employment wizard was fantastic tool and it wasn't until I just needed it (now) that I realised it had disappeared!
          Whoever is responsible for this… please listen to us mere mortals who run small businesses and employ 47% of the UK workforce… we need government support, not having one hand tied behind our backs!!!

          • Replies to James Burnham>

            Comment by Corrina Fowler posted on

            I've worked in many small businesses and agree with the comments here re: the depth of information that was available on business link. I may not have used it very regularly, but in a small business where time is money the ability to find an answer to the difficult questions that were answered on the business link site was invaluable and it doesn't seem right to target this at the population as a whole. In relation to user traffic, has anyone done a cost analysis which weighs up the potential time small businesses will now have to spend trawling various websites, trying to work out which give the legally correct and up to date advice in a user friendly format, as opposed to the cost of maintaining the business link website? ACAS is a good website, but I am not currently aware of other sites that provide similar information to business link that I would be confident in relying on (although no doubt will now have to start that search).

            I do however applaud the intention to prevent unnecessary duplication of information.

  6. Comment by Mark Bick posted on

    Please can you tell me who specifically came up with the idea that one group of people in an office could work out all the things that people across the country from all different contexts might want to know. It is intensely arrogant and an example of centralised Government centred thinking. It does not work for what I need! Which minister has been responsible for this?

    Haveing used Business Link and YouGov sites for many years I am deeply disappointed by what has happened. Twice since launch I have tried to find answers to specific business issues and failed. It is far too simplistic for profffesional business users, treats us like children. Where has all the rich content of Business Link gone? It was a government asset. Has it simply been dumped?

    • Replies to Mark Bick>

      Comment by nettienwilliams posted on

      Hi Mark - GDS is part of the Cabinet and our Minister is Francis Maude MP. What are the specific business issues you were wanting answers to? Please let us know so we can be of help and explain why that content has moved and where it now sits. Thanks.

  7. Comment by The next (business) link in the chain | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] Pollard at GDS has described the enormous task of analysing user needs, which included all the information and data on . If there’s one thing [...]

  8. Comment by Clive Lawrinson (@befriendings) posted on

    I picked up a leaflet about National Careers Service today to register my CV as am unemployed with an irritable bowel disease but there is no website

  9. Comment by Chitesh Ramroop posted on

    I know this if off topic but I'm looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is required to get setup? I'm assuming having
    a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I'm not very internet smart so I'm
    not 100% sure. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • Replies to Chitesh Ramroop>

      Comment by Etienne Pollard posted on

      Hi Chitesh

      Actually it's very easy to set up a blog and doesn't need to cost you any money at all. Try looking at or - both these let you set up a free blog that should met your needs, and if you want extra features they have pretty cheap "premium" plans.


  10. Comment by Etienne Pollard posted on

    Mark - thank you for the detailed comments - I think the product manager for the ELMS replacement service has been in touch with an update.

    Chris / Jack / Philip - I've blogged about the approach we took to meeting the needs of businesses at - the gist is that rather than simply copying across the existing guides, we took the approach of identifying specific user needs that GOV.UK had to meet, based on actual usage data, and then creating one thing to meet each user need. In some cases the "thing" was a single web page, in other cases it was a longer written guide or an interactive tool. In all cases the goal was to focus on what people needed to know or do, put the common case up front while also including further information for people with unusual circumstances or needs, and above all making it simpler, clearer and faster for the user. Not all of the pages on BusinessLink mapped across to a specific user need that had to be met on GOV.UK, so in those situations - mainly certain types of general business advice - we've identified where possible an alternative place to find that advice online. We've blogged about this at and we've worked with National Archives to preserve all of the information on BusinessLink (you can start browsing at

  11. Comment by Philip Hoyle posted on

    So where has all the valuable business advice disappeared that was previously on the Business Link website? It took years to produce (and millions of £s) yet it seems the Govt is happy just to cast it aside - it would have cost peanuts to keep the advice and factsheets and templates etc that were on the BL website.

    And why are the business/tax/company sections littered with school boy mistakes - did no-one check the content for accuracy before it was made live?

  12. Comment by Chris Stephenson posted on

    As a small business user of the Business Link site, I was disappointed that a valuable information resource has been removed and replaced with a consumer focussed populist website in myopic typeface.
    Flawed thinking - focusing on the popular - there must be a thousand sites telling me when the next bank holiday is. You should have looked more closely at what is not available elsewhere - unbiased business support and information. Yes it may cost a little more to maintain than what you are developing here, but compared to the hoards of business advisers providing face to face advice in the past, the Business Link website was a bargain. I am no fan of waste, but to ditch that web resource is a waste and a blow to the small business that the government is relying on to fuel economic recovery.

    • Replies to Chris Stephenson>

      Comment by Jack posted on

      I'm speechless. I've just had cause to use the site having been redirected there after a search for business link. What have I found? A site designed for three year olds it appears, by those whose education clearly didn't extend beyond primary level. What are you thinking?
      An incredibly useful resource, designed for educated, intelligent people looking for answers to very specific business related questions; Gone.
      What I'm thinking can't be said in a public place, but yes I agree with Mark "Now in true government “initiative – let’s waste some more money” style, a perfectly serviceable site has been broken up and replaced by a bodge job."
      Utterly disgraceful.

    • Replies to Chris Stephenson>

      Comment by Alison Willis posted on

      I completely agree with the comments regarding the sad demise of Business Link. It was a very useful site and I find it astonishing that the mine of information found on it has been replaced with such a simplistic site which does not help me and does not respond to my needs. I'm simply disappointed and frustrated.

      • Replies to Alison Willis>

        Comment by Tim Manning posted on

        Sounds as if GDS need to get a few of 'you' in a room (ex-Business Link customers) and re-assess the purpose and the nature of demand.

        I think it needs a slightly different mindset than applied to the 'Directgov' side of What is the business model? How does this link and support other initiatives around Government, e.g. related to encouraging and developing UK Plc.....

  13. Comment by From user needs to content – what’s the story? | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] already written about how we’ve worked to identify user needs for GOV.UK, so now I’d like to explain a bit more about what happens next – how does a need [...]

  14. Comment by So why have a site anyway? « Made in Lambeth posted on

    [...] Digital Services, when building, did a lot of work on exploring user needs, and defining the criteria for content and what’s in and what’s out. Their list [...]

  15. Comment by GOV.UK – One day in | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] we’re confident that all the user needs we’ve picked up from Directgov and Business Link have been accurately met on GOV.UK we can move on [...]

  16. Comment by Mark posted on

    I'm afraid it's another utter shambles! After endless tweaking of ELMS and Business Link, it was just about beginning to work. Now in true government "initiative - let's waste some more money" style, a perfectly serviceable site has been broken up and replaced by a bodge job.

    For a start, where are all of the documents that we lodged on ELMS? In the National Archive, we are told, but the link to that simply doesn't work! Furthermore any attempt to upload a document to Gov.UK causes the site to crash. The site's Adobe documents are suffering from 'swelling' (a symptom experienced by ELMS which BT - who managed the back end - tried in vain to fix). It means that an Adobe doc downloaded say at 200kb, swells to a huge size (often over 1.8MB) when completed; and subsequently causes the site to crash on upload.

    If you look at the pictures above of a bunch of people in T-shirts scractching their heads at hundreds of cards on the floor, you will get the idea that no-one has a clue as to what is going on...

  17. Comment by Meeting the needs of businesses | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] Tuesday I wrote about how we identified the things users need from government online, and how that’s guided the building of GOV.UK. Today I’m going to tell [...]

  18. Comment by APIs for all | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] with everything we do at GDS, our approach to APIs is driven by user need. Our core focus with APIs has been to approach them as a tool to help serve the vast majority of [...]

  19. Comment by Coding in the open | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] software. It’s a topic we care passionately about because it helps us maintain our focus on user needs by helping us to quickly test and iterate software and [...]

  20. Comment by No link left behind | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] people across dozens of organisations. For each redirection we have to collectively decide on which user-need is being met by the old page, and how best to satisfy the need on [...]

  21. Comment by rbrill posted on

    What the Beta team have done here is great but when exploring user needs I don't think it's enough to simply 'identify user needs' based on search data, traffic logs or monitoring how people respond to (Information Architecture goes some way to exploring [actual] user needs, but not completely)

    To understand what a user actually 'needs' and HOW they go about getting that information, I believe, is of primary importance here. I think user experience testing through the engagement of hundreds, if not thousands of real users face to face (video/audio feedback responses for example), in the field, is far more valuable when refining those common cases and helps to build a bigger picture than simply looking at search and traffic data.

    • Replies to rbrill>

      Comment by Etienne Pollard posted on

      You're right that data is a starting point, but it's not the whole picture. We've done multiple rounds of testing with thousands of real users and made countless changes based on real world feedback and usage. We expect that we'll get lots more feedback from 17th October onwards, and we'll use that to iterate and improve things further - not just once, but continually. Take a look at for more details.

      • Replies to Etienne Pollard>

        Comment by rbrill posted on

        That's good to know. I was concerned at the lack of clarification of real ux testing in this particular article - it's all good!

  22. Comment by Tim Manning posted on

    This is a good example of the application of the general service design principle - design against an understanding of demand. Nice to see. Unfortunately, all too often services are created that are based on very little understanding of demand, in the form of actual needs, degree of variation in demand and frequency.

    From a statistical perspective, there is a danger on focusing on the most "common cases". Ok if the Standard Deviation is low. If not, these are not common at all.

    • Replies to Tim Manning>

      Comment by Etienne Pollard posted on

      Completely agree that user needs aren't determined just by the common case. For one thing, there's a bunch of user needs that exist on despite very low demand, because the government is required to provide that information or service by statute. And that's as it should be.

      • Replies to Etienne Pollard>

        Comment by Tim Manning posted on

        My point was not so much about the need to provide services with low demand, rather that some services like 'Bank Holidays' will have a narrow, or skewed, demand distribution curve around 'Next Bank Holiday', whereas other services will have a much more stretched out curve, indicating a broader range of demand. In this case, driving the design around the most common (mode value) would not necessarily be the best approach. This needs to be specific to the type of demand that exists.

      • Replies to Etienne Pollard>

        Comment by Etienne Pollard posted on

        "other services will have a much more stretched out curve, indicating a broader range of demand. In this case, driving the design around the most common (mode value) would not necessarily be the best approach."

        Understood, although in this case we'd say that the user need as defined is too broad, and we need to define some more specific user needs to meet the different types of demand.

    • Replies to Tim Manning>

      Comment by Tim Manning posted on

      I would go along with that. I think it's akin to the BPR approach of breaking down complex processes (attempting to meet a wide range of demand) into a number of simplier process 'threads', with a narrower/similar range of demand. So say for Passports, the processes (or user journeys) would be "New Passport", "Renewal/Change Passport" and "Lost/Stolen/Damaged Passport".

  23. Comment by Rob Tarling posted on

    Excellent - I am strong supporter of what you are trying to achieve, and again this post is a very interesting follow up on this key area of digital public services as you prepare for launch.

    I have a question: would it be possible at this stage for the GDS to publish your lists of identified user needs for both citizens and bsuinesses in the same way that tyou have made available transactional information.

    This is without any intention to criticise; rather for interest. And even if the list morphs and changes - as it inevitably will over the coming weeks and months - it is both incredibly useful and inetrseting at this point to see a snapshot of the range/types of user needs being addressed by GOV.UK.

    And sincerely well done - it cannot have been that easy to have got this far.

    • Replies to Rob Tarling>

      Comment by Etienne Pollard posted on

      The medium-term plan is to upgrade the content API so that anyone can fetch a list of all mainstream resources (i.e. add a parameter to specify this subset, rather than just all resources). For now, I'd suggest you take a look at on 17th October, which links to all mainstream user needs (although note that it will also contain links to a few hundred pieces of detailed guidance that don't map onto specific mainstream user needs).