Late last year, we finished transitioning the websites of more than 300 government organisations onto GOV.UK.
Since then we’ve formed a new team to focus on improving navigation to make it easier for GOV.UK users to find what they need, and this blog post explores some of the challenges we face building navigation for such a rapidly expanding website. Navigation is a broad theme which covers browsing, searching, and the ability of users to orient themselves by seeing the context around a page.
Seeing the big picture
During transition, we reviewed the content and user needs of transitioning websites, rebuilding much of that content with its owners and moving it over to GOV.UK. We moved the content gradually to avoid big-bang releases as much as possible, and to learn how users interact with the site in the process. The downside of this approach is that we couldn’t see the ‘shape’ of the content until we’d finished the transition. Now it’s in one place, the full complexity of government content and the resulting overlaps in services and information have become visible for the very first time.
Finally having all central government content in one place allows our information architects to look at the overall structure of government services and information, and design a unified structure for organising the information on GOV.UK.
We’ve known for a long time that effective navigation on GOV.UK depends on a browse system and site-search functionality that work well together, and these mechanisms need to be adapted as the site grows. By adding lots of content to any website you introduce complexity that tests and stretches existing site features making it harder to use. The navigation systems required for a 1,000 page website are very different to that of 100,000 (GOV.UK currently has around 160,000 pages).
During transition we invested considerable effort to tackle these challenges. We added new ways of structuring the information and improved the search functionality but we know from feedback, user research, observations and analytics that navigation is not currently working as well as we want it to.
To tackle this problem we recently set up a new multidisciplinary project team to look at how we can make it easier for users to find the content they need on GOV.UK.
Team ‘Finding Stuff’ is currently in discovery mode and our plans so far include:
Recognising that navigating and finding things on GOV.UK will be an ongoing challenge we are creating some navigation principles to help guide future development of the site. These will be supported by evidence in the form of user research, analytics, and other feedback.
Structure the data
In order to build a clear navigation system covering the site, we need to build a comprehensive categorisation system. This will allow us to show the structure of information in the site, which will allow users with more specialist needs to drill right in to the detail. It will also form a basic skeleton on which we can build simpler presentation layers, such as search and a browse system for getting to the most commonly needed content.
We’re investigating how to build this based on the categorisation systems we already have, and what technical changes we might need to make to help with this.
Workflow and understanding tagging
To make categorisation work well the content needs to be tagged correctly, which requires tagging tools that are easy to use and understand. At present, the workflow is split across several tools, and it’s not clear to editors how to select the appropriate tags.
We’re investigating what the appropriate workflow for tagging content is, to allow content editors to apply the correct tags easily, and to provide for appropriate checking of these tags without getting in the way of publishing content.
Service-orientated information architecture
We’re also planning to further investigate a service-orientated modelling of GOV.UK, for example “content related to parents with young children”, something we looked at in detail during the recent firebreak exercise.
This approach takes advantage of having all government content together - we can group it based on common thematic services. So when a new or prospective parent is looking for information relating to the financial support available to them they can come to one place on GOV.UK and be guided through the process irrespective of the government organisations that may be involved in supplying that support.
Consolidate navigation patterns
We know that we have too many competing navigation patterns (for example mainstream browse, topic hierarchy, policy hierarchy, detailed guide categories and more). Users don’t understand the differences and nor should they need to. We plan to consolidate and unify these patterns, to simplify navigation.
We will follow this post with more detailed information about our information architecture plans, tagging and how we plan to trial the service orientated approach.