Introducing the beta of GOV.UK

A few minutes ago we released the first phase of the beta test of GOV.UK – the next step on the journey towards a single domain for central government. As Mike Bracken, HMG Executive Director for Digital said, our aim is to deliver simpler, clearer, faster services for users and savings and innovation for Government.

This journey started with Martha Lane Fox’s report demanding that Government ‘revolutionise’ its online services, and Francis Maude’s affirmative reply on behalf of the Government. The Government Digital Service (GDS) was formed as a result, and soon launched an experimental prototype of GOV.UK (alpha.gov.uk – now closed).

The beta of single domain was given the go-ahead in August 2011. There are three phases:

  1. Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of GOV.UK.
  2. Private beta test of a shared GOV.UK ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments.
  3. A first draft of a GOV.UK ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single GOV.UK domain. (see BBC.co.uk/gel for an example).

Today we have released the first phase. The second is on track to be released in a few weeks, with the third set fair for the end of March.

This post will give you lots of background about this phase of the beta. It’s going to be long. We’re sorry about that, but there’s a lot to say. If you prefer, you can take a quick tour of the beta.

Background and Directgov

The GOV.UK beta builds on years of work and learning across government and outside it about how to deliver great services to users. In the first instance it is designed to replace the content you’ll currently find at Directgov. Directgov is a tremendous achievement and has consistently delivered huge value to its 30m+ visitors each month. However it is now 8 years old – an eternity in web years – and the user experience it offers is showing its age.

It’s important to remember though – GOV.UK is just a beta test. It is not finished and may not be accurate and completely up to date – if you’ve got actual business to conduct with Government you should continue do it via Directgov.

What we’ve done

We have re-written, re-designed and re-thought 667 of the needs people have of Government (broadly, those currently catered for by Directgov) – making them as findable, understandable and actionable as we can. We’ve built a scalable, modular open source technology platform to support them, we’ve designed the user experience around them and we’ve worked with colleagues across many departments to fact-check them. Through designing and iterating these we’ve got the templates and techniques we need to support a whole host more needs – either written by ourselves or others.

What we’ve not done

  • A handful of really significant citizen needs are still on our ‘to do’ list (applying for your passport, job search, travel advice etc.)
  • Search always needs improving. Synonyms, misspellings and auto-complete, for instance, will benefit input from real users.
  • Browsing – the site is currently optimised for search, browsing by section needs more work.
  • For some more complex ‘needs’ we’ve written a guide when actually a step-by-step answer might be better. We’ll get to these shortly.
  • The redesign of transactions, or government gateway, will take time. Keep an eye on this blog for updates.

What next?

There are two big areas for development: further design iteration and wider, deeper content.

First, iteration: we’re going to be looking at your feedback, observing user behaviour and doing loads of testing to see how we can improve the experience of the site. Expect lots of design elements to change, features to appear and disappear and various aspects of the site to be tightened up and refined.

Second, content: there are huge swathes of government information and services that we haven’t dealt with yet. Content which explains what each Government department does is coming soon in the second phase of the beta (we use the term ‘corporate’ as a shorthand for this). And information of special interest to businesses will follow in the second half of the year. And, as yet, we’ve not scratched the surface of improving the service design/user experience of transactions nor the vast corpus of specialist and technical content that government publishes for lawyers, accountants and the like.

How it was built

We’ve used a small team of designers, developers and managers supplemented by micro-businesses when we need particular specialist skills. We’re using open software and tools as much as possible, and developing in the open. The site is hosted in the cloud. Our processes are iterative and agile, we have daily stand-ups and our walls are covered in whiteboards and post-it notes. Which is possibly just a lot of jargon to you. What it means is – we’re building GOV.UK the way Google build Google and Amazon build Amazon.

Who we should thank

  • All the critical friends and pioneers from inside and outside government gathered at places like GovCamp and on blogs and twitter.
  • All the departments and colleagues who’ve helped and supported our sometimes unreasonable requests.
  • Martha Lane Fox, UK Digital Champion, and Francis Maude, Minister for Cabinet Office, for their steadfast support.

What we ask of you

Primarily, ultimately, most importantly, this is a beta and for a beta to succeed it needs your feedback. So, please, go look at the site, have a play and tell us what you think – the good, the bad, the disastrous, the brilliant. The best way to do that is via our Get Satisfaction site, we’ll be answering questions there and you’ll be able to see what others think. Or you can comment below, tweet at us on @GovUK or email us at govuk-feedback@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk

Finding out more

Visit the beta site itself  (You’re reading the Government Digital Service blog). There’s also a tour.

We hope you find it useful, and ask you to tell us if not.

Tom Loosemore is leading the development of this phase of the GOV.UK beta

48 comments

  1. This is a very exciting time for digital government.

    I am looking forward to seeing how this much needed initiative grows/develops. Having worked on many government websites, I can appreciate the challenges faced by trying to push the public sector kicking and screaming into the digital age, I think the beta approach enables the full UX process to exist by also educating non-believers of the importance of thinking digital.

    A great achievement for all involved. Well done!

  2. Great work ninja teamteam. This heralds a tsunami of change in government – keep going!

    1. GOV.UK should be the starting place a search for UK specific government queries in all spheres of public life (International, National, Regional & Local).

  3. This is an excellent start by the government, if a little late.

    In my experience there is a real variance in the quality / professionalism of websites across then government and public sector. The digital space is moving quickly and the public sector should be engaging more with the wealth of innovative digital agencies that exist in this country.

    I am confident that additional spending by government bodies on their digital platforms would certainly reap cost savings long term.

    A positive start.

  4. I’m impressed by the progress; good to see agile development processes being used. Makes a change from the usual snail-like pace of change associated with many public sector projects. Most people (users) will accept imperfection if they feel they are being listened to. Hoping this might be a template for how other gov projects are managed. Great stuff!

  5. Oh dear, the Government clowns have been taken over by the geeks with buzz words.

    Don’t be fooled into believing this actually means anything useful will come of all of this disjointed activity.

    1. Say you were put in charge of this project Brian, how would you do things differently? You obviously have extensive experience in the digital or related fields.

  6. I really like this layout and ease of use. When/if the info provided is accurate it will be much easier to use than the current Direct.gov site which I find cumbersome and not at all intuitive. I’m an ADI so I use if often – to check on Licence rules, driving tests and the like.

  7. As both disabled myself and expert in both Ethnic/Disabled Accessible Format/Language System’s and Ethnic/Disability Assistive Technology System’s, or a user of these for my own disabilities too.
    The creators of this so called new British Government Website, should go back to the drawing board, but how much tax payer’s more is being wasted is another question though?.
    .
    First they need to read and properly understand, British, European and United Nation’s Diversity, Equality and Disability Laws, with regards websites.

    Second then design the British Government new website, to provide for all types of disabilities, in accordance with said laws.

    Third where are the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA’s) reports on these new Government websites, or the Public Inclusion and Involvement Consultations (P2ic’s), for these new Government Websites, which the Government is legally required to carryout for disabled people?.

    Or Government Minister’s and Civilian Servants, are just going to find themselves in a court of law, facing charges for clear disabled discrimination and breaching the Government legal duties to disabled people.

    As far as I am concerned, because the new Government website, is no better than the old Government websites. We disabled people will not be any better served.
    Yours Wheelchaircharlie39 / Ex-RA David MC>Hughes]veteran and disabled].

  8. Please….Please….Please…. Check all of the links work!

    I spent and wasted many hours using the old site

    which sent me in loops and into dead ends trying to book

    an ADI driving test. ALL links directed me to “Business Link”

    and asked for a business number I did not have as I am

    Only training at the moment. So back to the “cool medium”

    of the telephone, which worked first time.

    Also a simple site No animation or music PLEASE!

    Regards

    Nick

  9. I’m impressed by the initiative; Good to see agile development processes is adopted in delivering gov portal.

    Best Wishes from Dr.Mohammed, MyHRGulf.com

  10. I really like the new Beta Test Site but I am trying to find out if you will eventually switch off the direct.gov.uk website or perhaps just archive it? There is some information on there that I have bookmarked and isn’t on the new website so trying to work out if it’s worth noting it down ‘offline’…

  11. As a graphic designer the Homepage look rather bitty to me. If you put the solid green banner and the Inside Government strip at the top, then the 3 columns at the top to the middle and put the 3 items at the base in the same colour tint boxes, I think it would appear cleaner, neater and less cluttered. Otherwise I like the use of large type.

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