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Making it easier to find things on GOV.UK

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: How we work

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.

What’s next

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:

Navigation principles

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.

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  1. Comment by Simon Howard posted on

    If I might offer a personal comment from a frontline public health perspective...

    It seems to me that there are (at least) two way people interact with government websites. One is finding information when they're really not sure where to look - this is the mode I'm in when I'm looking to renew my car tax or passport or register to vote, and serves that sort of visitor well.

    The other approach is when people want to find specific information from an individual organisation - this is the mode I'm in when I'm looking for PHE clinical guidelines or data. Then everything from elsewhere in government is an irrelevant distraction. doesn't serve this use-case well at all - to the point that the organisation name doesn't appear in the page title (and hence Google snippets), or - in some cases - anywhere on the page (check out

    It strikes me that the first approach is probably commoner with a bigger user base, and that the second will often be the approach which is required in urgent situations where organisations are providing professional information to professional users, or fulfilling responsibilities as responders under the Civil Contingencies Act. It's unfortunate (and risky) that the former seems to have been prioritised over the latter, and I would urge the to rapidly work on the deficiencies in the second approach.

    • Replies to Simon Howard>

      Comment by Ben Andrews posted on

      Thanks for your comments Simon - please keep them coming.

      The above post mentions the formation of a new team set up specifically to fix the problems you outline. We know there is a long way to go before we can confidently say it’s easy to find what you need on GOV.UK, irrespective of your need or motivation. Addressing this is one of the teams top priorities.

      You may be interested to read the following post which talks about our presumed prioritisation of mainstream needs over and at the expense of professionals / specialist needs -

      Thanks again.


  2. Comment by Will Callaghan posted on

    Great blog post Ben, thanks for sharing. As a former member of the GOV.UK search and browse team I'm looking forward to seeing how this develops.

  3. Comment by Emmanuelle Rosello posted on

    Thanks for this blog (and the other one on GOV.UK being an ongoing work in progress). We will also welcome changes in the search, which is not so easy right now.
    A comment on that: search results would greatly benefit from being more organised, as results can be a mix of different types of content; also, when searching for press releases on a particular theme (ex: PSVI), it would be a great improvement to have the list of results organised from newer to older). Thanks for all your hard work!

    • Replies to Emmanuelle Rosello>

      Comment by Ben Andrews posted on

      Hi Emmanuelle - I completely agree. Search can be made much better both regarding the results that are generated for a given search query, and the presentation / organisation of those results on the search results page. We have ideas for both, so watch this space.

      Just for clarity, when we talk about navigation systems and making it easier to find things on GOV.UK we mean both search and browse. We try to think of them as part of the same solution.



  4. Comment by E. Brown posted on

    Dear Ben,

    Your claim of 'we finished transitioning' is profoundly misleading.

    Many agencies may have a presence on GOV.UK, but from where I sit in an executive agency, we have years of work yet, to successfully migrate the flat content that GDS will accept, never mind find a good solution for anything more complicated than a email form.

    It's vexing to those who continue to work on transition to hear your claims of 'finished' and 'moving on', when that's patently not true.

    The sooner you honestly acknowledge that you've met A goal of 'everyone has a working org page' vs THE (more demanding) goal of 'all the pre-GOV.UK government and agency sites are now closed, archived, and migrated', the sooner you can have more honest blogposts about what you're doing next.

    I'm happy to hear about your next projects. Just don't pretend you've finished the current ones.



    • Replies to E. Brown>

      Comment by Ben Andrews posted on

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for your comments.

      The scope of the transition programme was to create a single platform for Government for organisations that were not exempt. There is more information about exemptions on the GDS blog.

      The scope of the PHE transition as managed by GDS was to create an organisation page. The remaining content in PHE’s large and complex digital estate is being moved as part of a programme run by PHE and that programme has never been included in the scope of the transition project mentioned in this post. If you require more information about the PHE programme of work Diarmaid Crean at PHE will be able to help you.

      Thanks again.


      • Replies to Ben Andrews>

        Comment by E. Brown posted on

        Hi Ben,

        I'm not the person you're misleading.

        I'm acutely aware how much transition PHE still has to do, as I'm one of the people who tells Diarmuid Crean how much work is left in PHE's 'large and complex digital estate'.

        It's the impression you're giving everyone else, that somehow this project is done and dusted with language like 'we finished transitioning'.

        In fact the digital estate all over government is still covered in virtual signs, scaffolding and little guys in hi-viz jackets, while you're selling the next phase of virtual flats next door.

        So effectively, 'we finished transitioning' doesn't really mean 'we finished the job the way most people would think of it'.

        You *can* redefine what the words 'we finished transitioning' mean if you like. Does it remind you of anything?

        '...As I was saying, that seems to be done right — though I haven't time to look it over thoroughly just now — and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents —'

        'Certainly,' said Alice.

        'And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

        'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

        Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

        'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

        'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

        'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

        'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'


        E. Brown

  5. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    Hi Ben,

    It used to be trivial to google search government departments with eg AFAICS this is no longer possible. A very simple improvement to search would be to always include the departmental acronyms in URLs eg

    instead of

    A better solution (I'd guess a lot more people use site: than inurl:) might be to use subdomains so

    could become

    • Replies to Tim Blackwell>

      Comment by Ben Andrews posted on

      Thanks for your thoughts, Tim. Some good points there.

      We know through user research that it's not always the case users have a strong association between government organisation and 'thing' (information, service etc), and less so with organisation acronyms. That said there are exceptions and we are looking at how to better support users of the content you describe who may well have government structure as their mental model.