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Shipping new detailed guides

Improving the effectiveness of detailed guides has been a priority of ours for some time now. In particular we've been working with departments to move the content that was either not meeting a clear user need or not guidance from this format (and setting up redirects, of course).

In the process of  this content review, we have concluded that there is still a need to retain a separate format (the "detailed guide" or an evolution of it) which contains task-oriented information for professionals or practitioners. A user need that this format is designed to meet might be something like:

'As a manufacturer of medical devices
I need to know how to register my product
So that I can market it in-line with registration.'

This is a more specific proposition than what detailed guides were used for in the past, but that format still provides a good home for this information.

Welcoming back the detailed guide

In a few days, the button to create detailed guides will be back. But to create a detailed guide (or make a new version of an old one), you will now have to enter the user need or needs that the guide is designed to meet. This is to help ensure that every detailed guide is created to meet a defined, task-oriented need for a professional or practitioner audience. It will also give us a database of which users each guide is aimed it, so that in future we could create landing pages specific to professional subject areas (see below). Lastly, it ties in to a bigger project about capturing user needs for each piece of content on GOV.UK to help us measure our performance.


At the moment, we expend effort solving the same user experience problems twice in HTML publications and detailed guides - that is, how to make long structured content easy to read. It also places unnecessary cognitive load on users ("why are these two pages different?")

We want to consolidate the templates for both formats, and test the result with users. This will be a design story in an upcoming sprint.

Finding detailed guides

The major difference between HTML publications and detailed guidance will be how you navigate to them, and what navigation options you'll be given from them. In line with the browse work currently going on for GOV.UK, detailed guidance will still appear for browsing purposes primarily under 'services and information' rather than 'departments and policy', both because it meets a different kind of user need and because lots of organisations often contribute guidance to the same specialist area. We are also considering landing pages for particular specialist areas, e.g. the energy industry or construction.

At the same time, we'll be looking at improving findability of these guides from organisations and topics, as for many users there is a strong association between the guidance and the organisation which provides it.

What's in a name?

Detailed guides used to be called specialist guides. We changed this after testing on GOV.UK export content showed that users didn't understand whether they were a 'specialist' or not. We're reflecting on whether that was the right call, given what we've learned since and what we now know about the content coming our way from agencies and arms-length bodies. We suspect that the export audience was not representative, because the line between expert and amateur is blurred .

So we're going to do some further testing to find the words that make sense to the users of these guides. We may find that the best word is 'specialist guide' and we'll have to change it back to what it used to be. We live and learn, and will continue to make decisions based on the best user evidence we have at the time.

Iterate iterate iterate

Improving the format and navigation for detailed guides will continue to be a priority for GOV.UK, because so much of the content from agencies and arms-length bodies which will be moving onto GOV.UK in the coming months is guidance for specialists. We'll keep blogging about our progress.

[Image from Dennis Wilkinson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons]

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  1. Comment by Suzannah Brown posted on

    Hi Alice,

    Good to see GDS are starting to look at content like ours for specialist information for professionals. The devices example is one of the user needs (or a version of it) we've provided from the MHRA.

    I think for browse, our information for the medicines and devices industry sits slightly oddly under services and information (as does some other existing info there for professionals) but this perhaps reflects the fact that organisationally at GDS, you've got product teams looking at task-based content for a mainstream audience and broad topics for govt and agencies and our information sits somewhere between the two.

    Hopefully the work on browse and specialist landing pages will address this because, currently for our info, there's no start point for our info without this. Look forward to seeing the development of the detailed/specialist guide formats as we're currently re-writing our key content areas and it would be good to know how they're going to be displayed.

    • Replies to Suzannah Brown>

      Comment by Alice Newton posted on

      Hi Suzannah,

      Yes we did take the example from one of your user needs! Thanks.

      You raise a good point about user journeys and starting points for specialist audiences, and this is something we're thinking about now. We'll keep you updated on this.


  2. Comment by Graham Lee posted on

    Thanks Alice - this is great news.

    Remit and name for this guidance will definitely be something that will require further thought, especially given that users said some of the early guides were far too wordy. One of the challenges will be to make "task-oriented information for professionals or practitioners" simpler, clearer, faster, etc. Not all of it will have to be 'detailed'.

    If the information is for experts and amateurs, would it be absorbed into the 'mainstream' part of the site, for the general public? There may be a risk of duplication, or organisations using the format to avoid simplifying their guidance and their procedures for a wider audience. Professionals and amateurs alike struggle with a lot of esoteric jargon on government websites.

    I hope that as well as asking for user needs you'll also be enforcing the GOV.UK style guide, wherever possible. A lot of the earlier specialist/detailed guidance was doomed from the outset, because it had been copied from departmental websites or Business Link, and not reworked for the new site.



    • Replies to Graham Lee>

      Comment by Alice Newton posted on

      Hi Graham,

      I very much agree - we're reevaluating the name, because this information shouldn't be detailed for the sake of it. As you say, professionals and specialists deserve well-written and concise content, just like mainstream users.

      We always want editors to write in line with the GOV.UK style guide and we do spot checks of content to check on and encourage this, but with a devolved publishing model we have to rely on motivated editors in departments (like you!) to achieve this. That said, we'll be keeping a particularly close eye on the content in new detailed guides.


  3. Comment by Andrew Wiles posted on

    Hi Alice
    This is good news and some really positive stuff being done.
    Good luck with the naming. Specialist sort of feels right, even though there are many 'amateur experts' who browse the content, either investigating a personal situation more fully, or because they simply have an interest.
    Many of these guides are lengthy by their very nature. But if the new formats allow for them to be divided in to easily findable chunks that would be good. The 'specialist' will be expecting more detail and therefore both length and complexity.
    Look forwards to future iterations and happy to volunteer Transport for any experiments!

  4. Comment by Andrew Robertson posted on

    I sympathise with the need to get a guidance type set up. I do wonder though, what is the opposite of detailed or specialist guidance? If there isn't any other type of guidance, why not just call it 'guidance'? Does the label, whether 'detailed' or 'specialist' matter, or is it just important that the right people get the right level of detail to complete their task?
    Perhaps worth looking at what organisations on/moving to GOV.Uk already use? If it works and customers are used to the terminology, perhaps adopt that. Does it matter if it is 'specialist guidance' in one place (e.g. for consultants) and 'detailed guidance' elsewhere (e.g. company director)? Perhaps it does.
    Examples of what I've seen are: Guidance; Regulatory Guidance; Technical Guidance; Quick Guide.

    Also, is there any feedback on whether the term 'guidance' makes people think it is optional even though it could be explaining how to comply with the law?

    Oh, and love the title and picture in this post!

    • Replies to Andrew Robertson>

      Comment by Alice Newton posted on

      We call it detailed or specialist guidance to distinguish it from guidance for a mainstream audience (for example we have one piece of government guidance for disposing of batteries if you're a general person, but different guidance if you're a battery manufacturer). But I think you make a fair point and in testing we should keep our mind open to the possibility that any name beyond 'guidance' is not useful to users, particularly if the difference in audience is reflected in the title of the guidance. Even if they have the same name though, I suspect where you find guidance in browse will want to be different for specialists and mainstream.

      Glad you liked the joke 🙂

  5. Comment by John Ploughman posted on

    Hi Alice

    Are there any thoughts around how related detailed/specialist guidance and other publication types are linked together?

    At the moment detailed guides have the 'Related detailed guidance' section at the bottom. There are some cases where the task focused detailed guide needs to be linked to the the more 'reference' based publication of 'Guidance' type. At the moment the only way of doing this is using an inline link.

    Another area where I'd welcome more guidance is downloads from detailed guides. So far we've been adding downloads (eg an application form) direct to detailed guides. Is this the right way to do it, or should the download actually be added as a separate publication of 'Forms' type, and then be linked to from the detailed guide? The latter is now being done in mainstream, and I'm concerned we're giving users 2 different experiences.

    Speaking purely as a user, I don't like clicking a link to download a form, only to be taken to a front sheet telling me about the form, making me click another link to actually download it - and taking me further away from the guide that I came into in the first place.

    Grateful for any advice.

    • Replies to John Ploughman>

      Comment by Alice Newton posted on

      Hi John,

      I agree about it being useful to have other links to different kinds of content aimed at the same group of specialists - we'll take this into account in our redesign.

      In general, forms should be added as separate publications so that they have separate metadata, since the form and guidance might change independently, and in some cases users wish to access forms directly. But we're aware that some users are frustrated by the separate publication page, and I think this requires more thought and research on our part.