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When will more people visit GOV.UK using a mobile or tablet than a PC?

Yesterday the BBC published data showing more people accessing iPlayer via tablet than via computer. This prompted me to update some of the data I gathered for the government's agreed approach to mobile last this time last year.

The objective of the UK government's digital strategy is to make sure our digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so. But what our users consider to be 'straightforward' and 'convenient' is not static. We need government services to be able to adapt quickly to big changes in people's behaviours and expectations.

For example, here's a graph showing how the devices people use to visit GOV.UK have changed since its launch. (To be precise, the data is for visits, rather than users.)

Percentages of visits to GOV.UK from computer, mobile and tablet
Percentages of visits to GOV.UK from computer, mobile and tablet

Since 1 January 2014,  63% of visits to GOV.UK have come from a computer, 23% from a mobile and 14% from a tablet. In January 2013 it was 77% computer, 15% mobile and 9% tablet. If you visit the GOV.UK performance dashboard you'll see that the sample sizes are non-trivial.

Compared with the general UK population, the graph above may be skewed by a minority (around  2%) of GOV.UK users who visit the site more than 100 times a month, often to research government activity as part of their job, typically from a work computer.

I've tried to get more representative UK data by looking at the visit data for the two weeks following Christmas Day, when such power users are probably not quite so busy.

The device breakdown for this period last year was 74% computer, 16% mobile and 10% tablet.

This year saw 61% using a computer, 24% mobile and 15% tablet.

On Christmas Day 2013, only 51% visited GOV.UK from a computer, compared with 66% on Christmas Day 2012. (Over 300k visits to GOV.UK this past Christmas Day; 34k were looking for a job; over 5k bought a tax disc.)

Shifts in the devices people use to access the internet should come as no surprise, but the pace of change might. And I do not expect this switch away from PCs towards more personal, portable, touchscreen devices to slow down anytime soon.

The UK government e-petitions service has seen incredible changes in how, when and where it is used. Pete Herlihy has product managed this service since it went live in summer 2011. As he revealed recently, only two years ago over 75% of visits came via computers. Now a mere 27% do so, with 56% from mobile, and 17% from tablet.

Not every service will end up with such proportions, but e-petitions demonstrates just how rapidly and radically user behaviour can change. Here's current data for some of the transactional services on GOV.UK:

Book your practical driving test:

Computer - 67.4% (was 71.3% in March 2013)
Mobile - 21.4% (was 17.7% in March 2013)
Tablet - 11.2% (was 11% in March 2013)

Change date of practical driving test booking:

Computer - 56.9% (was 61.3% in March 2013)
Mobile - 32.4% (was 30.3% in March 2013)
Tablet - 8.7% (was 8.4% in March 2013)

Apply for a Student Finance:

Computer - 64.6%
Mobile - 26.6%
Tablet - 8.8%

Make a Lasting Power of Attorney:

Computer - 84.3%
Mobile - 12.4%
Tablet - 3.3%

Apply for Carer's Allowance:

Computer - 67.1%
Mobile - 17.7%
Tablet - 15.2%

I hope this helps explain why the digital by default service standard requires that, from April 2014 onwards, all new or redesigned central government digital services must be designed with an appropriate range of devices in mind. As we say in the GDS Design Principles, our services must understand the context in which people will use them. And for many people, for many services, that context is swiftly becoming more mobile, more personal and more touch-controlled.

Designing for small screens can be a real challenge. Which is why for many of the 25 exemplar services we're now designing the mobile version first, despite visits from computers still being in the majority. Why? Simply, it's often easier to make a service also work for a computer monitor and keyboard if you've already made it work really well on a small touchscreen than it is to go the other way.

Moreover, as Andy Washington, MD of Expedia UK & Ireland, explained at a recent panel, designing within the constraints of a small touchscreen helps keep your underlying service as clear and as simple as it needs to be to serve all your users, including those who may be new to the internet, or find it a struggle.

Finally, to answer the question posed in the title to this post: When will more people visit GOV.UK using a mobile or tablet than a PC? On Christmas Day 2014, if not before.

NB I've seen no data over the past year to suggest the government's approach to downloadable apps should change. We're still not 'appy about them, and central government departments and agencies must seek an exemption before they start developing any.

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  1. Comment by Lee posted on

    On a historical note, your prediction that Christmas Day 2014 would see more mobile than desktop users doesn't seem to have been borne out.
    shows that the lowest percentage of desktop users was 53.1% (just after Christmas 2014).

    The trend is toward mobile use, but the transition doesn't appear as rapid as expected.

  2. Comment by myles posted on

    Hi, Be great to have an update to this, just to track against that tipping point....
    I'm working on an intranet for example which has limited devices for now, but if the external sites go past the tipping point it's a useful fact to apply in discusses about how urgent mobile-enabled intranet is.

  3. Comment by Matthew C posted on

    With all these browser stats, what is the plan of action? The 'industry standard' now is to offer mobile responsive websites. No longer should a website serve up a different page, rather, a page that is stylized and designed to compliment the myriad of screen sizes people use. I appreciate, what an incredible task it will be to make all government websites mobile responsive. Perhaps the job of the government is to simplify the online offering. They seem to be large and clunky!

  4. Comment by Jill posted on

    Do you have figures for any business based transactions as opposed to citizen ones, eg the business finder tool? Would be interesting to see if the proportions are different.

  5. Comment by Emma Allen posted on

    Hi Tom,

    More people visited on a tablet/mobile than a PC on 14 January 2014, albeit momentarily. At peak the split was 41% tablet, 40% desktop, 18% mobile. We were launching a new service, received lots of media coverage and saw huge amounts of device fluctuation at different times of the day. TV was the big influencer, through second screening. Realtime stats have been a revelation for me - don't just rely on averages.

  6. Comment by Midas Media posted on

    “we’re now designing the mobile version first … it’s often easier to make a service also work for a computer monitor and keyboard”

    9 times out of 10 this is the right approach to take, designing on the ‘small stage’ first means you’re very careful with your content and usability – which is great.

    Desktop traffic still of course the main source for the majority of sites, but with time and as infrastructure improves (3G to 4G) mobile internet use will only accelerate. Mobile is becoming more and more integrated, in time we’ll see it surpass desktop for sure.

  7. Comment by Simon posted on


    Just a couple of things. You’re comparing three devices – computer, mobile, tablet, and pointing out in which order your device design priority is changing, and why. That’s good. Good pointer for budding interface designers. I’m wondering why you aren’t including ‘phone’ here, particularly for the older generation. You know, the old maddening touch pad menus. To be fair to your elders, for some, they’ve got this far, so you’ve got to look after them. simplify/ standardize menus.

    The GDS team, up till now, has only had a focus on the information, or asynchonous, services. We all appreciate the cost savings. But sometimes one needs to talk to a person, so you’ll need to broaden this context out a bit now, to include “real time” services, as the inclusion team defines its strategy.

    The present app policy, I think, is the right one, primarily as the GDS is just one of many/every? government teams focussing on delivering “me too” departmental services which will have to conform to similar standards. So this may encourage a whole new industry of app developers who can build, and support, more mobile citizens, as they move/live in different countries.

    Perhaps, rather than “seeking an extension” the developers might be given a opportunity to present a business case, if not to the gov, then some Venture Capitalists.

  8. Comment by John posted on

    What’s happened to the total number of visits over this time?

  9. Comment by posted on

    I think if people want to visit a website and they have a tablet it’s easier, quicker and more convenient to do so via a tablet but there will also be that traffic which will stumble or check this site while they are logged onto a PC. I think it’s becoming a split between browsing and casual use including gaming on a tablet but for main tasks like essays, posts etc… then it’s very hard to replace a laptop or PC. More leisure tasks on tablets and more formal tasks on PC.

  10. Comment by Tim posted on

    Hi Tom, I’m afraid this is one of the areas where your decision to locate government services on a single domain undermines the overall user experience you offer. You don’t treat motorists, pensioners or students as separate users for research, hence doesn’t cater for them. Presumably these groups have different needs, ages, incomes, and devices?

  11. Comment by posted on

    fascinating, but the underlying service design challenge remains – by nature many government services are ‘wordy’ for want of a better word. it’s unkind to call them verbose because they often confer or grant fairly fundamental things, safeguarded by parliament but they can feel like that when you are in them.

    i recently filled in the power of attorney forms using the new service. it was a vast improvement on a paper form and meant i didn’t need a lawyer to do it, because i could understand what was going on. but it had to convey to me quite a bit of information for good reason, and required details of several other people by the nature of the process. maybe i am just old or something but i couldn’t see myself doing it on a mobile. this does of course fit your service design principles to be aware of context.

  12. Comment by Dave Jones posted on

    Hi Tom. 642 people booked their practical driving test on Christmas Day 2013. 54% of these used a tablet or mobile device. Dave Jones, DVSA