Austerity measures: lessons from the GOV.UK redesign – Sarah Richards

Austerity measures: lessons from the GOV.UK redesign – Sarah Richards

I almost passed up Sarah Richards’ excellent session “Revolutionizing Government Content” simply because our agency doesn’t work on many government projects. But the lessons from Sarah’s experience redesigning GOV.UK, the British government website, apply to any complex organization’s content — and the work of her team was an inspiration to any practicing content strategist.

Sarah is chief content officer of Government Digital Service, the multidisciplinary government agency formed to manage the publishing processes for all online properties owned by the British government.

When it started, the GDS team faced an overwhelming amount of content: some 70,000 English-language pages aimed at businesses and more than 5,000 pages for citizens. The team’s goal was to consolidate the different websites and pages into a cleaner, simpler, faster and easier-to-use website.

“We want services to be so good that people will prefer to use them,” Sarah said.

To do this, the content team’s primary goal was to scale back on the quantity of content — and to make the remaining content as user-friendly as possible.

The long, hard path to simple and easy

There was a lot of hard work involved in getting to simple, Sarah explained. “The government has a need to spout everything. The user has a need to get away from you as quickly as possible.” The team read every single page, questioning the point of each page.

“With each page, we asked: is the government responsible for telling them what they’re telling them? And, can only the government give them this information?” If the answer was no, the content strategists cut the page. “We cut all advice you could get reasonably get someplace else,” Sarah said, and retained only the pages that were absolutely the government’s responsibility.

They also questioned what vocabulary people were using to find pages in search, and where they ended up with certain search terms. For example, the driver’s agency (the British equivalent of the DMV) calls a certain document a VC5C — but ordinary citizens refer to it as a “log book.” The content team had to be sure that this terminology appeared in titles and text in order to be findable.

The content team used analytics to ensure that the content most people were looking for was upfront, on the first page. “If only 20% of people are looking for it, it’s still there, just not on the first page,” Sarah said.

In the end, the team cut about 75% of the original content. But they also had to make sure that any content or transactions that were vital to doing business with the government remained, even if it served few people. The GDS found that content and functionality related to paying taxes served about 978 million people across the U.K. But there was also functionality allowing for the application of a license to burn heather and grass — a license that only one person in the U.K. every applied for. “He can only get that license from us, so we still need to service that need,” Sarah said.

Less is more

“We have fewer pages, but our users are more engaged,” Sarah said. With the reduction of content, the GDS team helped to decrease the time it takes to complete transactions by 60% while increasing accuracy.

The team’s measurement of success is less about traffic and views and more about user success. “We don’t care about traffic, we don’t care about numbers. We just need people to get the information,” Sarah said.  

The GDS team focused on gathering content from many different organizations and presenting it by topic, so users don’t have to know what agency does what to find information. They also worked hard to eliminate jargon and to write clearly, so users could be successful at completing the tasks vital to their livelihoods.

One of the most fascinating and exciting things about the team’s work is their openness about their process. They post their style guide and blogs about their process on various websites (see below) and invite comments about the work. While the House of Commons backed up the group’s commitment to user-focused content and design, the GDS still fought the usual good fight: getting people to give up their beloved sacred cows in order to advocate for the user.

“We made a lot of arguments and went through a lot of pains to make this massive leap,” Sarah said. “And just because we proved ourselves once doesn’t mean we get to stop.” At each step of the way, she said the team tried to bring in the users’ voice. “You can’t argue with somebody if they’re not in the room. These people are telling you it’s wrong.”

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