Over the past year we’ve been writing about the ways in which GOV.UK will develop, in order to continue meeting user needs, as expectations around how and where to receive information evolve.
We’ve talked about offering a more personalised experience for users and delivering information to the channels and devices users expect to find it, whether that’s on the GOV.UK website or elsewhere. And we’ve discussed some of the ways we are looking to support this, through building a more holistic picture of how users use government information and services, developing our data science capability, and introducing early thinking on the idea of a GOV.UK account.
We’re also looking at the role content plays in connecting all of this work and how our approach to content will change as a result.
Where we are now
At the heart of GOV.UK is a publishing platform which, for the most part, is built up of individual pages that are grouped together and made findable through underlying taxonomies. Whether you’re navigating through a menu structure or searching for a term or phrase, GOV.UK helps you get to a page that is relevant to the thing you are looking for.
By taking a user-centred approach, the content on that page is designed to be understood as quickly and easily, and by as wide a range of people, as possible. But it still requires you to read through the whole page (or set of pages) in order to understand the information fully, and then interpret what is relevant to you and your personal circumstances. In other words, we can get you to the relevant page, but often it’s then up to you to find the relevant information to your situation.
We’ve done a lot of work over the years to improve the way users can navigate through complex information easily, working on site-wide navigation and taxonomies, as well as looking beyond these to other ways to access content.
The smart answers format, for example, has played a crucial part in allowing users to access information and services quickly, and continues to do so especially in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Developing the step by step pattern has provided greater ability to join up content across complex user journeys. And the UK Transition (formerly Brexit) checker has gone even further in giving users a succinct, personalised view of information that spans multiple sets of user needs.
Some of this work has provided opportunities to apply a more modular approach to content, where information is built up using small content components that are designed to be used (and reused) in different ways based on context. But, for the majority of GOV.UK at least, the smallest component of content is currently the single page.
This makes it harder to extract individual pieces of information from within that page and serve it where needed. An example could be an item of eligibility criteria that is relevant to your circumstances on a page about applying for funding, or a prerequisite task on a page about getting a licence.
We’re now starting to explore how we might structure content differently, at scale, so pieces of information can be reused and accessed more easily, both across GOV.UK and beyond GOV.UK.
Structuring content in this way could support personalisation by identifying, extracting and bringing together pieces of content in a new context based on a user’s circumstances. It could provide better exposure of content to third parties, with benefits of search engine optimisation (SEO) and channel-agnostic publishing. It could also offer new ways to reduce duplication and efforts in content management. Ultimately, it could allow users to get the answers they need more directly, quickly, effortlessly.
Breaking content down into smaller chunks is only part of the picture, however. It’s also about understanding what characteristics each piece of content has and what similarities, differences and other relationships pieces of content have with each other.
In this way we are thinking about and investigating our content as pieces of data rather than simply pieces of text. And we’re considering what sort of data we need to get out of our content in order to develop new models, and what sort of data we need to add in.
We’ve already made progress on this, through adding structured data markup to GOV.UK content, which has improved the way content appears in search results on Google, for instance. And we’re now using artificial intelligence to increase our knowledge of the information on GOV.UK, helping us start to understand those characteristics and relationships across hundreds of thousands of pieces of content.
Hundreds of thousands of pieces of content is, of course, the big challenge here. To implement new models for structured information at scale we will be working through much wider decisions on governance and authorship, publishing workflows, and technical, data and content architecture.
I’m also particularly interested in what skills and capabilities will be needed to support these new content models and approaches. What does the content designer of the future look like, for example? And how can we continue to support them in their work on GOV.UK content?
Many of these decisions and questions will need insight, feedback and collaboration from across government and I’m interested to hear from other teams who have been thinking about these areas. If you’re outside of the UK government and have ideas, I’d love to hear from you too!
Old concepts, new contexts
Structuring information in the ways I’ve laid out isn’t a new concept: online shops and other commercial sites have been using and refining models of structured information for reuse, personalisation and more for years if not decades. But the scale of information on GOV.UK, together with the complexity of users’ needs and their expectations when interacting with government, present new challenges that we are starting to work through.
Structuring content in new ways that go beyond page level, and improving our use of content-as-data, provides us with a structured information source that will better support the GOV.UK of the future. We’re proving the value of going in this direction in a localised way, and so will now be ramping up our efforts. It’s a large and emerging area, covering many topics I’ve not touched on in this post. We’ll be blogging more on this as our work continues.