Build services not websites - design principles from GOV.UK

03 Jan 2016

I’m a little bit in love with GOV.UK.

It’s the behemoth online home of the UK government, bringing the nation’s digital services under one roof. An ambitious project which centralises and standardises the web presence for hundreds of disparate agencies.

GOV.UK has a unique set of design challenges: design for the whole country; for any and all users and needs; for the disabled; for the digitally non-proficient. It encompasses all manner of services, from car tax renewals to grant of probate guidance, from passport applications to registration of a lasting power of attorney.

Understandably, it has suffered significant growing pains since its launch in 2012.

Staggering, then, that this award-winning service succeeds on so many levels.

User-focused design principles #

The body responsible for GOV.UK’s design is the Government Digital Service. Its design principles and design manual are robust and consistently-applied across the service.

Unlike many other design guidelines available online (e.g. these) – the starting-point of the GDS design principles is content and user needs, rather than a visual language.

They include:

Start with needs (of users, not the government). If you don’t know what the user needs are, you won’t build the right thing. Do research, analyse data, talk to users. Don’t make assumptions

This is principle number one and it’s user experience through-and-through.

The principles also highlight the critical need for simplicity. Here’s number four:

Do the hard work to make it simple. Making something look simple is easy. Making something simple to use is much harder — but that’s what we should be doing. Don’t take “It’s always been that way” for an answer.

Users – who are seeking to perform critical tasks, as opposed to simply browsing a website, are at the heart of the principles:

Build digital services, not websites. A service is something that helps people to do something. Our job is to uncover user needs and meet those needs.

To clumsily sum up in my own words:

  • It’s all about the needs of users
  • Content is king
  • Make it useful, readable and accessible – “prettiness” is not an objective
  • Less is more

Seeing GOV.UK’s user-focused principles in action #

As a rule, GOV.UK contains nothing superfluous. Here’s a page relating to applying for a grant of probate, an area of particular interest to me:

Gov uk design - grant of probate An uncluttered, needs-focused and content-driven page at GOV.UK.

Contrast the clear, needs-focused design above with a page from the DirectGov service which GOV.UK replaced:

Old design for Directgov The cluttered, hard-to-read and unfocussed approach of’s predecessor, Directgov.

Ultimately, the reason GOV.UK succeeds is the GDS’s unflinching goal to satisfy users’ needs as simply as possible.

Huge credit is also due to the content-writers and editors, condensing often complex and technical subjects into clear, accessible advice. For example, the grant of probate page, above. The GDS’s Writing for GOV.UK guide shows how it’s done.

GOV.UK isn’t perfect, but attaining such consistent usability is a hugely impressive achievement, and one – precisely because of its simplicity – that’s easy to ignore or under-appreciate.

In the UK, successful, ambitious, long-term government projects are rare things, especially in the digital domain. GOV.UK is something we can cherish and learn from.

There is a wealth of publicly-available resources from GDS. Recommended reading includes:

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