Exploring GOV.UK as a system
By 2021, GOV.UK had gone through two major crisis response projects: Brexit and Covid-19. We’d paused our work on the platform, moving fast to deliver much needed content and services to users.
The pace and pressure of these projects led to building bespoke solutions rather than iterating, and we’d started to undo previous work to streamline and improve the site.
When the dust settled, we knew we had to make a range of updates to platform and how we worked on it.
I collaborated with design and product leadership to define the GOV.UK strategy for 2022–23. A key focus of the strategy is to ‘fix the basics’, laying the foundations for ambitious future delivery that depends on a solid, resilient platform.
What we did
We launched a discovery to investigate how to build tools and processes around the foundations of GOV.UK: what it does, how it fits together and how people work on it.
I worked with stakeholders to shape the brief and helped the team define, scope and deliver the work.
Interviews with publishers revealed that many were misusing content types because they weren't fit for purpose. This hinders navigation by undermining the IA.
These issues were exacerbated by teams using fragmented resources: tech docs, component libraries and content guidance were siloed and contradictory .
Finally, there was little information on how past decisions were made, or why.
We explored structured content
Publishers needed content types that had flexible features. To achieve this, we explored how to structure content and separate it from its presentation.
Structured content also unlocks content distribution across the site, meaning we could build personalised features for users who have signed in and shared their data with us.
We prototyped flexible templates
We designed and prototyped a template to deliver several different content types. Features are controlled by the publisher, providing greater flexibility and reducing content type misuse.
Publishing would be controlled with permissions instead of needing separate applications for different content types.
We brainstormed better documentation
Research revealed that there were no standard processes for teams on GOV.UK to rely on when working. Many people didn’t know what resources existed, and knowledge often disappeared when team members left.
Most pressingly, we needed a way to make sure that work done was always aligned with the GOV.UK strategy. Teams needed to understand the why, not just the how of decision making.
We started pulling together all the known documentation and rewriting it in a user centred way.
To make teams fall in love with these ideas, we brought them to life with stories, prototypes and future scenarios.
It was important to bring people along, and teams were invited to collaborative sessions to build on and iterate the ideas.
Making sense of a complex system isn't just about good documentation or solid foundations. It's also about talking to teams to understand how they interact with and understand it.
Changes to systems should never be top-down; an iterative and collaborative approach is vital.
Taiwo Aboyede (product management), Jenn Philips-Bacher & Sally Creasy (content strategy), Rik Williams (content), Marina Filiba (service design), Rebecca Cottrell (interaction design), Jo Cameron (user research).