If the government can do it….
(a love letter to Gov.uk)

Earlier this month the UK Government Digital Service publicly launched the gov.uk , the ‘single government domain’ or the primary interface for UK Government’s digital interaction with citizens, replacing sites including DirectGov and BusinessLink.

Although I’m no expert on public sector projects or the history of the UK Government’s web presence (I’ve done bits and pieces as I suspect many of the UX Community in UK have done), I want to take a moment to commemorate the impact of this achievement for anyone who is trying to encourage large organisations to embrace better digital work practices.

This is a big deal.

It’s important because Gov.UK arguably brings a new high standard of design, content and overall user centricity to public sector digital projects. It’s true that the UK Government has engaged its share of designers and user experience (or, probably more accurately, usability) people over the years, until now it has felt as though they were constrained to making things less bad, rather than aspiring to really create experiences that citizens wanted to engage with.

That’s because this is not really a design case study – it’s not about the government finally finding a decent designer to pretty up the interface or a usability person to write the perfect report telling them what to do. It’s about actually creating an environment where, having hired those people, they are able to do what they are good at and to actually get their work, relatively unscathed, through the complex web of stakeholder engagement and approval processes, and into ours – the citizen’s (or in my case, resident) hands.

What the Government Digital Service have given us is a brilliant case study in overhauling the way things were done before and changing them around so that they can support the creation of better user experiences online.

I thank the @GDSTeam for giving me the case study I need to present to large complex organisations who are trying to revolutionise their  user experience without changing the way that their organisations work. Now I can say,  ‘Well, if the UK Government can do it, I’m sure we can’. In my experience, it’s quite  compelling.

A page like this doesn’t come into existence because one designer had a good idea. This is no vanity redesign project, these designs and this content has gone through the complex series of stakeholders and approval processes to get from ‘good idea’ to ‘actually live’.

Being able to sell something as radically different, to give stakeholders the confidence to go with something like this -that is a tremendous achievement.

Remember – this is the typical approach to public sector content:

 

This is not a story about interface design (although kudos to the designers who have worked so long and hard on this project). It’s a story about organisational design. The changes that the GDS Team made to how digital design is done in government is what enabled design like this to emerge.

Changes like:

  • moving to a centralised, multidisciplinary team who work in close proximity and are able to focus on solving particular problems, not get hauled around from project to project to project with no time to focus.
  • housing this team in a space that facilitates close teamwork between the members of these small, agile teams (including, from what I’ve seen, plenty of wall space. It matters!)
  • using an iterative but agile project methodology that involves regular testing information gathering allowing the team to make decisions driven by data rather than opinions
  • working openly, sharing what they are doing (including the code) and why they are doing, inviting others to participate in the process and inviting feedback often.
  • having clear and inspiring leadership who continue to evangelise for the team higher up in the organisation and be the battering rams driving change throughout the organisation.
  • having vocal and consistent support from the highest parts of the organisation
  • spending time on creating artefacts that allow the team, as it grows, to maintain a clear shared vision about the way they are approaching challenges and defining solutions.

and many more I’m sure.

More than anything I’m thankful for the final point – the openness and the time spent creating and sharing artefacts.

From the very beginning, the team have been sharing their methodology and rationale, their project documentation and even their code. They have been helping to enable the rest of the world – not just governments – to improve their practice and make better digital products.

Some of the treasures that they’ve provided us with include:

There is plenty to criticise, there always is. Nothing is perfect, and even less so in large and complex projects like this. And yes, the real challenges are ahead – can this scale and can it be maintained for the years to come now that the ‘launch’ has passed.

Most of all though, here is an amazing opportunity for all of us – public sector or otherwise, UK and around the world, to take advantage of the awesome work the team has done and the resources they’ve provided us with and to use them ourselves to no longer accept ‘the way things are done around here’ but to require and facilitate transformation.

The space you work in, the size of your team, the access to and interest from upper management, your project methodology – all of these things and many more will directly impact your ability to do good work, to deliver good experience. If you want to fix the experience, it’s critical to look at the environment that is impacting the ability of your team to deliver.

People often talk about Apple’s design process, but I think equally important is the way that Steve Jobs took the focus off the Profit &Loss statement- making that the responsibility of just one person and, apparently, running just one P&L for the world’s most valuable company. (Most companies run multiple P&Ls between departments (functional or product), and crazy decision making and politicking ensues).

Only through transforming the way your team, your organisation works will you really be able to transform the experiences that the organisation is creating for its audience. It’s not a UI problem, it’s an organisational design problem. Those things do matter.

So, get stuck into addressing the environment as well as the experience design and when you’re feeling challenged, remind yourself and your colleagues, ‘well, if the UK Government can do it…

4 Responses to “If the government can do it….
(a love letter to Gov.uk)”

  1. Jake Rayson October 30, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    What a lovely love letter! Thank you for highlighting the good work of the Government Digital Service, and for the useful examples and references. From leviathan to change agent ;)

  2. Ben Terrett October 30, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Thanks Leisa, that’s very kind. You should come and visit us at GDS sometime.

  3. Ana October 30, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Great read! I really like the usability side of the new website. I think it’s supper simple to use and scan. My only concern is that the homepage doesn’t look like a modern website. When I first saw it I was thinking I got to the wrong place – some kind of blog or so. I believe they could have done a better job with the look and feel. But all in all I think from usability point of view this is one of the best examples on how to make it easy for customers to use any online application or website with plenty of content to manage.

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