The information in this blogpost may now be out of date. See the current GOV.UK content and publishing guidance.
The Product Gaps team are building a new format for long, structured guidance. We’re calling this format ‘manuals’, because many of the things that will live in it define themselves as manuals, such as the Valuation Office Agency’s Rating Manual. (The word ‘manual’ won’t appear to users, though, as it wouldn’t make sense on some other documents eg the Civil Procedure Rules).
The most basic form of a manual will be ready for departments to start using in a few sprints’ time. Feedback is welcome!
How it works
Each manual has a contents page listing the sections of the manual. Section pages display all their sub-sections as headings that you can scan through and open out relevant sections in-page. For users who are thorough readers, not scanners, you can also ‘open all’.
Criteria for using the manuals format
These are our draft criteria for using the manuals format. Please comment if you have a document you think would be a good fit for the manuals format, but which doesn’t meet the criteria.
A document can use the manual format if it fulfils all of the following criteria:
- It requires at least two levels of hierarchy, ie it is broken down into sections and sub-sections
- It is too long to be easily readable in an HTML publication or detailed guide
- Its users think of it as a single body or document
- It is a legal or guidance document
Findings from discovery
As part of the discovery for this format, we chose a few manuals and explored their user needs in more detail through analytics, surveys and existing research. Based on these user needs, we made and tested a number of prototypes. We learned some important things.
1. Reading long documents on the web is tricky. Lots of the documents on GOV.UK were paper books originally, but this doesn’t mean we should artificially retain the constraints of a book as some online services do. Until now we decided (like Wikipedia) that long HTML pages are best: people are comfortable with scrolling and it doesn’t create artificial breaks in the content, or the need for too many clicks. But for really long documents (the HMRC manual we’re currently working on has 3000 pages) and those that have a clear hierarchy, users found very long pages overwhelming. That’s why we’ve designed a format with collapsible sections.
2. Users like a beginning and an end. This might seem obvious, but if you’re creating a manual in a web-native way, you can structure it more like, well, a web. The service design manual was built like this: to browse through it, you choose your own adventure. However, this hasn’t tested well.
Where a manual is government guidance and possibly enforceable (eg the service design manual is the supporting document for the service standard which government digital services are required to meet), many users want to know they can read the whole of it, or a certain section, to do their ‘due diligence’ - and they feel worried or frustrated if it’s not clear how to do that.
3. Communicating the changes. It’s really important to users to know when something changes and what’s changed, and this is especially important in long guidance or legislative documents. We’re going to start by improving on our usual pattern for change notes on documents, but we know there’s a lot further we can go: eg allowing people to sign up for email alerts from a single manual, showing the changes in-line, like a diff, or having a ‘time-machine’ functionality so you can view a document as it was on a given date. But these things are some way off.
4. There’s still a need for documents offline. One of the first comments on the excellent HTML Government Digital Strategy was “where can I download the PDF”. Users of all kinds of manuals say the same. They want to read documents offline or print them, whether on an eReader or a laptop connected to the internet, and a PDF is generally the most familiar way to do that. For now we’ll be adding a button to print the page which will make it clear to users that you can print and in the future we’d like to auto-generate PDFs.