To say that no-one wants to visit a government website is an over-simplification. But it’s certainly true that the compulsion is significantly different from what drives people to a destination website like BBC News or Facebook, or from something customer-facing like Amazon.
“Government isn’t Amazon” is hardly headline news, and may seem like stating the obvious, but treating a website as a destination in its own right, or assuming some kind of traditional customer relationship is a trap that many websites, both public and private sector, fall into again and again.
Those of us responsible for commissioning, building or designing a website are often unable to see beyond its edges (I’ve been just as guilty of this in the past as anyone else) – to see where it fits into people’s lives and why people might be there.
People interact with government online either when they have to, eg applying for Job Seeker’s Allowance, filing a tax return, or to get information that government provides to citizens for support or statutory obligation, eg “what rights do I have?” “how do I do so-and-so?”.
There are exceptions to this, such as areas of specialist content (eg professional guidance for teachers or accountants) or content that exposes the workings of government for internal and external scrutiny – both of which will be covered in future blog posts.
But for the majority of the population, the internet is the browser icon on their desktop, the starting point is Google, and they have a parking ticket to pay and are a bit grumpy about it.
People want to be in and out as quickly as they can, with as few surprises and as little faff as possible.
It’s all about the nodes, aka landing pages, and what lives at them, not the hierarchy of the website that they live on.
Many commercial websites live or die by the effectiveness of their landing pages, and the same applies to government.
As has been mentioned in previous blog posts, we spent a considerable amount of project time looking at all the search data we could lay our hands on to identify what the top things people were looking for from government.
We found that 1) Google is the starting point for the significant majority of gov.uk journeys, and 2) there is a relatively small number of tasks that lots of people want to do (Peter Jordan will be blogging about this in more detail soon).
People are arriving from search engines looking to complete a specific task, so we decided to build an unashamedly flat, task-focused website to help people find the ‘quick do’ as we termed it.
The assumption is that people are coming from a search engine, and for those who aren’t we provide an autocomplete search box with a more traditional search results page as a backup – again to get people straight to the answer as quickly as possible. It’s about the nodes not the network.
It’s not that there isn’t any Information Architecture on alpha.gov.uk – there is a concept of related content to link together things like ‘report a lost passport’ and ‘apply for a new passport’. But it’s very flat, and relies on editorial choices rather than a fixed hierarchy.
The second part of this is what lives at the nodes – what are the nodes landing pages for? We realised early on that, mainly due to the constraints of one-size-fits all content management systems, many government websites tried to answer every need in the same way – with an article consisting of text and links.
We took the opposite approach, that every node (landing page, endpoint, microsite – call it what you will) should be tailored to the task at hand.
What started out as a kind of joke amongst the team (“We’re building a NotCMS”) became a defacto design rule.
Again, more on this in a future post…