Not so special after all

I’m Neil Williams, one of the product managers for GOV.UK. I work on the Inside Government and detailed guidance areas of the site, where practically all government organisations will publish their corporate and in-depth content in future.

Eagle-eyed GOV.UK watchers may have spotted a few changes to the way we’re handling detailed guidance content on the site since we introduced the format in beta in early August.

For instance, that term I’ve used twice above - 'detailed guidance' - has replaced the previous label of ‘specialist guidance’ everywhere it once appeared. ‘Detailed’ has ousted ‘specialist’ in text labels on the site and the /specialist/ bit in URLs has been dropped entirely.

Let’s remind ourselves what I said about ‘specialist guidance’ on this blog before:

"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.

"[...] 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.

"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."

Those were our goals and assumptions, and we set about validating them using lab-based testing methods.

In the lab, we observed several people whose jobs involve import and export of goods and services trying out various user journeys around the international trade content on GOV.UK.  We found that, although the format itself fared well in terms of making these long and complex text documents easier to read and navigate, users didn’t identify with the word ‘specialist’. At all.

In the worst of cases, the ‘s-word’ actively prevented users from progressing through to their goal. They said things like “you don’t think of yourself as a specialist so you think it’s not for you” and, when they got there, “it’s just more detail on the same subject”.

So instead we’re using the words the users used. It’s detailed guidance now. That’s the beauty of beta releases, user testing and continuous delivery.

As well as the name change, we’ve made some substantial and rapid improvements to the site structure too. With the introduction of detailed guidance categories like this one, users can now browse from top-level categories through to detailed guides and use the breadcrumb to better orient themselves as they move between the shallow and the deeper levels of GOV.UK. Plus the design of the format has moved on a bit.

We’ve written all of this up in more depth on Inside Inside Gov, our little blog on the side for digital editors in government departments - which you might want to check out if, like someone classifying aircraft parts or exporting electromagnetic devices, you’re not scared of a bit of detail.


  1. Confused

    If you use search now you will find the results divided between 'general' and 'detailed' whether or not you know what you're looking for or have any prior knowledge. To the basic user, I would have thought this was very confusing since detailed guidance would suggest that it's the same information but just more of it. When really it seems (on the few searches I've done) to be sector-specific content.

    Link to this comment
  2. Meeting the needs of businesses | Government Digital Service

    [...] specific detail (e.g. where specific regulatory terms might be required) we’re linking to “detailed guides” so that the minority of interested users can find what they need without disrupting the [...]

    Link to this comment