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Helping government find user needs with analytics

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Data, User research

Over the last couple of months we’ve run search engine optimisation and analytics workshop sessions for content designers in government departments and agencies.

We work with them to challenge assumptions about user needs by looking at how people are actually using GOV.UK content, and show them how to use data to prove that their work is improving the user experience.

There are hundreds of people in agencies and departments who publish content to GOV.UK, and they all need to know how to find user needs and ensure that their content is meeting them.

We’re developing a culture where changes to GOV.UK are informed by user data, and monitored to determine whether the user experience improves. So, instead of cyclical, internally driven arguments about what and how to publish - which can result in poor content - we can work from hard evidence and prove the results with clear success measurements.

For example, we recently measured the effect of the new organisation template, and this graph shows how searches for ‘widows pension’ dropped when one of our content designers included this term on the relevant pages:

Helping government find user needs with analytics

To start with, our analysis doesn’t require data at all. We search for the topic we’re writing about in Google to see what already exists. Then we search or navigate around GOV.UK with our need in mind to think about how people might be using our content. Once you’ve got a theory about how people are using your content, it’s easy to use data to confirm or challenge assumptions. This approach allows you to understand the actual needs of the user instead of being forced to publish blind.

The workshops cover how to use both Google and GOV.UK search data to find out about user needs. We also set everyone up with a dashboard for their content that reveals how people search for it in Google, top pages, and what they don’t find and have to search for on GOV.UK. We set attendees up with an email alert that acts as a weekly nudge - the aggregate voice of the user coming into their inbox to say ‘’Oi, this is what I need’’ in the form of search terms and top pages.

One of the perceptions about analytics that we most wanted to change was that data is really difficult to use effectively. There are some tricky access and login tasks, but once these are completed people generally find insights about their users easily.

For example, Neelam Hussain from the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) team found that people were searching for ‘qts’ (Qualified Teacher Status) on GOV.UK because they weren’t finding it. By featuring this on the NCTL home page, she was able to give people what they were looking for, which she proved with an increase in traffic and a decrease in searches. Brij Thakrar, our resident trainer plays a big part in making the data simple, meaningful and friendly, which was no small task given the short amount of time he had to become the answerer of a million questions about content analytics.

We want content designers across government to make quick analytics checks to inform their day-to-day work. Analytics will soon be a common language used in web teams across government to remove some of the time and effort needed to debate what users actually need by providing proof instead of relying on opinion.

We've now included SEO and analytics in our three day 'Learning content design for GOV.UK’ training course. If you’re in a government department or agency you can sign up for this course here.

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  1. Comment by Lana Gibson posted on

    Hi Raul,

    GOV.UK's cookie policy makes it clear what cookies we place and what we do with them. We anonimise IP addresses and do not allow Google to access use our data.

    Google (and other providers) have different analytics packages with different levels of data ownership.

    Cheers, Lana

  2. Comment by Raul posted on

    Hi Lisa,
    Don't you find the use of Google services (and Analytics in particular) to severely violet users' privacy?
    I'm working in a private company and we had users complaining that we are "sharing" their browsing habits with Google. We eventually took it off and ended up implementing one of our own.

  3. Comment by Lisa Ollerhead posted on

    This is interesting - I've done days one and two of the training and considering day three, it looks like it would also be useful for those of us on the GOV.UK blogs rather than GOV.UK proper?

    • Replies to Lisa Ollerhead>

      Comment by Lana Gibson posted on

      Hi Lisa. It would be interesting to see if the course would be useful for blogs. They have a different function so I'm not sure.

      Happy to have a look if you want to share your analytics account with me!

  4. Comment by Calum Shepherd posted on

    Good read and dropped you a note on Twitter.

    Dominic had mentioned getting buy in from senior management can be challenging. However, making people comfortable with changing their daily routine and using data more regularly can be the hardest bit.

    I do think the sessions outlined are a great way of tackling this. It takes people out their status quo and helps them think about things in a new light. Putting things into practice is a big aspect and can't be underestimated.

    • Replies to Calum Shepherd>

      Comment by Lana Gibson posted on

      Thanks Calum. Completely agree with you - a big part of the challenge is finding what data actually helps improve content and making it usable. Data fear and boredom are probably the hardest things to overcome!

      • Replies to Lana Gibson>

        Comment by Joshua Mouldey posted on

        Hi Lana. That's interesting regarding keyword (external search) data - sounds like you'd have enough volume to make the bing/yahoo/etc search data a reasonable indication of need, even without all the google search data. For a site with fewer visits there's a larger margin of error, especially when broken down into individual service areas - and I often have the awkward task of communicating to service managers that although most user traffic comes from search, the keyword data we have is but a very small sample of it.

        I would be interested to know whether you have any verdict on using the search data in Google Webmaster Tools for this purpose, which does provide the search data that is now largely hidden (albeit not in the best format and only for the last 90 days, etc)?

        • Replies to Joshua Mouldey>

          Comment by Lana Gibson posted on

          Hi Joshua. The Google Analytics sampling/not provided/not set issues means it's harder to make analytics usable and meaningful, definitely.

          We use Webmaster Tools data in our central GOV.UK team, but for department and agency training the Google Analytics dashboards are much more practical.

  5. Comment by Colin Anderson posted on

    Good idea. I think this method provides more reliable information about the real needs of individuals.

  6. Comment by Karl posted on

    Great post. Just out of interest, what Google search data are you displaying in your dashboards to help find out about user needs, given the huge amount of (not set) keyword data? Are you surfacing Google Webmaster Tools information?

    Cheers, keep up the good work.

    • Replies to Karl>

      Comment by Lana Gibson posted on

      Thanks Karl. We surfacing normal Google Analytics keyword data. You're right that there are loads that are hidden from us, it's really frustrating. But we get a lot of traffic and take general themes from them, so still get user insight in most cases.

  7. Comment by Dominic Hurst posted on

    From personal experience getting senior management to buy in to measurement culture is so hard. (Especially Gov, HE etc). Wrote a recent post on it -