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Building a better gov.uk, step by step (gds.blog.gov.uk)
283 points by open-source-ux 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

A lot of people skip reading gov.uk because "I'm not from the UK what do I care?!" but I believe it is one of the best consumer web page development & design document bundles around. Even if you're based out of the US or elsewhere.

There's too many good pages to link but to get started:




The US also has some good sites (Healthcare.gov's design pages[0], federal government's digital team[1]) the main reason I like the gov.uk stuff a little better is because it deals with more than simple design, it gets into philosophy, deployment, and testing.

[0] https://styleguide.healthcare.gov/design/

[1] https://designsystem.digital.gov/

Agreed, GOV.UK is so underrated. Their service review teams (who give approval) are relentless about user research, accessibility and ultimate effectiveness of the service. They won't allow a service to pass an assessment until it meets these on a very high standard, no matter how 'urgent' or important the project is.

Their commitment to accessibility is also laudable, unlike other commercial organisations who aren't incentivised to service that minority.

Many people complain that GOV.UK "looks boring" but it's brilliantly effective.

Former GDSer here[0] - this was one of the things that really grabbed me was the focus on design for users -- and this included release cycle as you say!

In addition, we were encouraged to throw away PoCs (that had passed the first service assessment) and start anew to make sure we ended up with a great service at the end of it. This meant that inside a pretty large organisation, testing and validating new services was relatively easy as you could cut corners on the PoC and have an institutional understanding that you'd probably throw it away entirely and start again with something more solid.

One of the mantras that was oft repeated was that 'people do not have a choice to use our service' -- because it was a service that only the govt could provide for whatever reason. The government service manual is amazing, alongside things like the service design rules (more aimed at UI/UX designers).

In addition, the entire team for a service or section thereof would participate in nearly everything. User research (actually watching users use the site) - everyone was there, from user researchers to product managers to developers and designers.

It's a shame more of it wasn't adopted by other govt dept (there are notable exceptions who have done a very good job)

[0] Plug - I worked on the new data.gov.uk

[1] https://www.gov.uk/service-manual

Thank you for your service!

If people are complaining they obviously didn't have to deal with the horrors that they replaced!

It's always so jarring to be taken back to the odd parts that are still running on the old system (mainly when digging around in PAYE / VAT stuff).

The modern GOV.UK is a breath of fresh air compared to the government's online offerings when I first started in business 8 years ago.

The old HMRC website is so so bad, I dread VAT time.

relentless about user research

You're not kidding there. Every single time I go to do PAYE I get the same survey questions, even though (when I can be bothered) I tell them they could improve the site by .. not showing me the same survey every time.

In fairness I'm pretty sure GDS haven't taken over PAYE yet, so they can't really be blamed for that.

GDS don’t actually take over many services. It’s HMRC’s responsibility to update their services to meet GOV.UK standards.

If you're on a government website giving feedback that it's boring you really need to evaluate your priorities. It's a website for utility.

Do people actually complain about that? I've never heard anyone in the real world even mention gov.uk.

People probably don't mention it because it's so good it's invisible. In my experiance people in the 'real world' only mention (read: bitch about) services they struggle with.

I have never heard any complaints in real life, only praise. Gov.uk is brilliant for the same reason facebook beat myspace; it's clean and predictable design which focuses on functionality.

Is gov.uk actually better than places like Estonia or Sweden? Or is it just that info about it is in English, so HN talks about it more? (Accessible information is important, so I don't want to down play the importance of it.)

Definitely better than in Sweden, where there is no central site similar to gov.uk to begin with. Many individual government agencies have pretty good sites though, and most are actually available at least partly in English. https://www.skatteverket.se/ (tax agency) and https://polisen.se/ (police) are two examples.

Check this out for Latvia: https://www.latvija.lv/en

Ofcourse not everything in English there, but you also have step-by-step instrucations, can submit applications, filter by state authorities, etc.

Probably better than Sweden. Estonia did a great job and influenced the UK but GOV.UK is a much bigger project due to the relative population size.

I don't want to post someones name without their permission but the information is readily available online, one of the people responsible for the improvements to the government digital service previously worked at Vitsœ; and the government design principles you've linked to above are not too dissimilar to Dieter Ram's design principles[0].

[0]: https://vitsoe.com/good-design

I find many government web sites to be too link-heavy. What I mean is that on any particular page, they distract you with too many links to related information in other parts of the site, but such related information should probably have been made part of the current page.

As a result, I find myself opening a large number of tabs when getting information about a topic on these sites.

To be fair, a good amount of the information outlined on government websites is actually pretty dense, complex and requires resources from different branches of the government - it's a difficult task and easy to drown the user in a sea of links and tabs.

Which is exactly why this step by step solution described in the blog post is so useful. It guides you through the various tasks involved in achieving your initial goal, which is outlined in a persistent progress sidebar. Well done in my opinion.

I agree, I think it's the gold standard when it comes to accessible, performant, lightweight and functional design systems. It quickly provides information and solves real everyday problems for a wide range of people from all walks of life.

Meanwhile I have to visit authorities, bring a printed photo, wait and waste time to have my ID renewed in germany. I envy countries liek Estonia or the UK, which offer digital solutions to these common issues.

Living in the UK, I've come to believe that gov.uk is the model that all governments should follow. No matter what I need to do, gov.uk has all the information I could need, and tells me where to go and what to do.

Their greatest success isn't the website, although it is incredibly clean and easy to use. Their greatest success is distilling bureaucracy down to easy-to-follow instructions - as highlighted in this article. Their content is impeccable. Lists, bullet points, jargon-free "here's what you need to do", for any issue you might have in your life.

The Plain English Campaign with their Crystal Mark accreditation deserves much credit here too. They've been successfully removing jargon and 200 word convoluted sentences from business and governments since the 70s.

gov.uk is a fine continuation of that tradition.

The global financial crisis has a lot to do with it. A ton of the best talent in London were at startups and design agencies which went under; a lot of them went to the Government and did a really rigorous job; even though they've now moved on, the culture they put in place was bulletproof.

Yes, in recent years many top GDS employees have left[0].

Most common past 'companies' for GDS employees on LinkedIn are Department for Work and Pensions, Cabinet Office, Ministry of Justice & Home Office[1]. All the people I know of there used to work at the BBC.

[0] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38320072

[1] https://imgur.com/a/Gvk1EBV

I'm more measured on this.

The "plain English campaign" often boils down to dumbing down copy and removing all words that a 12 year old might not know.

There are many terms, especially legal terms, which have a precise meaning and which are used for a reason.

Teach vocabulary and good English in schools!

I agree we should aim for good vocabulary and English, but we can't forget many who have English as second or third language, or were unable to get quite the same level of English from school.

When it's a statute or legal judgement I'm happy to see the necessary precision in terminology. When it's a passport application, or an electric bill I'll take the simplest terminology viable. So I can spent the least time skimming it and still get the right information. Much like writing for the web. :)

I don't regret the death of overly flowery Victorian formal business writing. Notwithstanding your views heretofore. :)

The average reading age in the UK is 9 years old. Are you proposing that the Gov.uk website be inaccessible to the population it serves?

Don't forget, unlike other websites and apps, people do not use Gov.uk of their free will. They are forced to use it, in the sense that it is the official source of information and services from the government.

Citation? I mean, I believe you (I teach in a university here :~ ) but I'd like to se it backed up.

In most cases, it is possible to convey the same information in a concise manner to the average person.

Just like with math, I get the impression that sometimes the level of jargon/legalese used is an attempt to differentiate oneself from the everyday person. The same information could theoretically be put forward in a way which is understandable to all, not just those with a degree.

It's difficult to convey the same information.

From experience, the information provided on gov.uk can be incorrect because it is simplified too much. Very important aspects are lost and it becomes misleading.

As the saying goes, simplify as much as possible, but not more.

> but not more

Where there is essential complexity, explain the complexity clearly and skillfully.

The book Style: Towards Clarity and Grace is a good instruction manual, especially for those who have read Strunk & White

Although note that there's a non-zero number of professional linguists and grammarians seem to consider Strunk & White to be prescriptivist nonsense that you're better off ignoring.

I'd be very interested in reading a critique of Strunk & White if you've got a link.

> prescriptivist

Isn't all advice on how to accomplish a goal going to be prescriptivist?

Theres a problem I've found where you can't be sure if bullets are AND conditions or OR conditions.

E.g. in https://www.gov.uk/30-hours-free-childcare?step-by-step-nav=... the eligibility section the first section of bullets is AND and the second is OR.

It's easy enough on this page, but when you are looking at tax rules it can be hard to tell.

The NHS (National Health Service) website has had a recent update to their homepage and follows a similar style to gov.uk:


Here what the old homepage looked like:


They recently published a style guide and it is excellent https://beta.nhs.uk/service-manual/

Hadn't noticed this redesign, looks like they've done a really good job.

I wonder if it's just been inspired by GOV.UK or if the same group of people (or just some of them) have been involved. Either way seems like they've made a real improvement.

Except when you need to log in. Email doesn't work, have to remember a government gateway ID that everyone forgets because they use it once a year.

Now that all UK passport holders have NFC passports, they should just say 'touch your passport to the back of your phone to log in'.

The passports support challenge-response auth, allowing gov.uk to securely identify the passport in a way a device cannot spoof, and the Web NFC API is implemented quite widely now.

To be fair, government gateway isn’t actually developed or maintained by GDS (the organisation responsible for GOV.UK)

Psst...put it in your password manager.

Not living in the UK but being a UK citizen, I agree. If I need a form, I can find it and associated guidance quickly.

The equivalent on my corporate intranet means navigating multiple intranet sites and conflicting guidance.

What would be nice for a next-step for gov.uk is removing the paper forms entirely for fully electronic filing 'self service' for everything. I understand that takes time.

As a UK citizen living abroad, there are still some things that are not possible for me to do via hmrc.gov.uk, and still requires paper forms or passcodes to be posted to me (which can take weeks).

The first Government As a Service?

Having luved in the UK for 6 years and now in Germany, I agree with you.

Disclaimer I used to work for the Ministry of Justice (UK) as a software developer.

There are two aspects I feel worth mentioning:

1. GOV.UK is not one single unit but rather quite distributed. these styles and standards are created by a central organisation called Government Digital Service, and all the the government departments follow and feedback. There is a design community and one of the ways of collaboration is to use a Wiki https://paper.dropbox.com/doc/GOV.UK-Design-Patterns-Wiki-hk...

2. UK government is a big open source software contributor. Software projects by default are open source on github. It felt really good getting paid for writing open source code when I worked there :) https://www.gov.uk/guidance/be-open-and-use-open-source

This is a complete 180 from about 18 years ago, when I contacted someone re. the Jobcentre website requiring Internet Explorer:

"I only have a Linux system, how can I get access?"

"We only support Microsoft Explorer."

"So if I use Linux I can't find a job?"

"We only support Microsoft Explorer."

That kind of blinkered approach went on for far too long, so it's a real pleasure to use the various websites on gov.uk at the moment. Even traditionally unpleasant things like filing a VAT return are relatively low friction, and taxing a car is absurdly easy.

Now, how can we get the same sort of thing to happen across Whitehall and Westminster more generally? ;)

Australia tried to follow this with gov.au, and it was a bit of a debacle. It ultimately didn't work because it the agency driving it lacked a stick and couldn't coerce agencies to give up their branding/content. Agencies couldn't see the financial incentive -- they'd have to give up their funding and control, and that just wasn't appealing at all.

Frustratingly the idea will be dead for a good time to come now. For an agency to do this, they need a stick -- I believe the GDS had IT spending levers they could pull to control how money was spent across the entire public sector. This made them quite powerful and ultimately allowed them to say "if you want to publish your agency's content, it has to be on our platform".

The end result is a far better UX.

Not so much “on our platform” (services are surprisingly free in terms of technology and process) but “by our principles”. The GDS assessment process did indeed have clout, in the sense that services could fail, and failure had consequences for funding.

I did two 6-month stints as delivery manager on GDS “exemplar” projects. I remain a fan.

Maybe not platform per se, but through your domain. There's a huge power in that (as gatekeeper of content). It means department's have no choice but to adhere to the standards and recommendations.

The exemplar projects in the Australian system were discontinued after the second round, and were really just lip-service -- at the end of the day, even the exemplar projects were at the mercy of internal Departmental IT operations who ultimately decided what went on to their Departmental domains.

Also, cross-party backing (prominently Francis Maude and the Lib Dems on the Coalition side, Tom Watson on the Labour one.)

I didn't saw anybody mention the amount of money they save because they don't need to support by phone and email that much.

I was thinking of other countries with really complicated gov pages must get so much more questions by phone, face to face or email. Probably a magnitude more.

Also these countries learned to answer emails with a template that comes from the website, like copy paste. Therefore the customer need to wait for the template, ask again and wait for the 2nd reply, which most of the time is as bad as the first one. Then you call in. (By the way, looks like PayPal learned this technique as well, send a template to any support ticket, wasting the time)

I think this younger generation prefers to read online, so they did a very good bet

Gov.uk is a great example for any web developer to follow. You can see the thought they've put into ensuring clarity of information, casting aside complicated, whizzy graphics. Also it's very accessible for those with disabilities.

I can only assume that this was one project kept well away from the steer of our politicians!

It's more the fact that it wasn't put out to tender and won by a big outsourcing company like Capita. They would have tried to implement it all using SharePoint, gone massively overbudget and bailed leaving a slow mess that everyone avoids.

Instead, lots of small projects written by a young team using sensible technologies and sticking to an excellent set of user interface guides.

I am based in England and so is my company. GOV.CO.UK is an incredible portal: finding info is easy, readig is easy, getting forms is magical, sending forms is seamless. Some parts of the other related portals are older though but being updated too, in order to have a consistent experience throughout.


Question about public service projects, may make it an Ask HN or a blog question as well:

The Agile or iterative model, coupled with the sec/devops CI/CD model that includes "own what you build," means that developers and highly skilled devops teams are available to manage a CI/CD pipeline throughout the lifetime of the product.

There is an underlying assumption that you are building to support the growth and revenue model that SaaS companies require to survive and in turn pay for continuous developers.

In public services, there is no such revenue growth. You have a budget for developing it, then hand it over for production, and then you manage it over the long term with more cost effective operators who are largely unionized employees, engaging developers only if needed to reconcile the code with an infrastructure change.

Keeping developers engaged and maintaining CI/CD on a product that does not have revenue or growth means that the cost curve diminishes much more slowly than in the waterfall engineering model. It means we have to ask whether the additional cost yields commensurate benefits, and what budgeting for a service supported by CI/CD truly costs without hockey stick revenue growth attached to it.

I contract to an agency that would benefit from an 18F.gov or gov.uk like digital service, but I have not seen this particular cost issue addressed. Has anyone in gov.uk, 18F or another digital service run up against this, and found solutions?

From what I have seen, this is one of the major problems that the GOV.UK / GDS service model has thus far failed to address.

The advice is "keep the team around for each service indefinitely". Unfortunately this doesn't mesh well with either government technology funding models or the demand for increasing numbers of services.

As a US -> UK immigrant, I have been seriously impressed by the design of many UK government pages.

Same here. I am a US to UK person as well. Stuff is just so much easier to find and fill out. It was a breath of fresh air, where previously I would dread the thought of trying to use govt websites.

This reminds me of how incredibly good TurboTax is at UI, and if US and state governments were to invest in UI we wouldn't have to pay $100 a year just to do our taxes.

TurboTax lobbying is the reason you have to use TurboTax.

It isn't like Australia, Sweden, or Vietnam have spent millions of dollars on UX for their tax filing, yet no one uses tax software in those places.

You are right. The UX for the Swedish tax filing is sub-optimal, the language is not simple and calculations are unnecessarily complex.

The main reasons are that the tax form comes prefilled, most people don't have to do any adjustments and can just sign it and hand it in. If I understand the US correctly TurboTax does a lot of lobbying against this for obvious reasons.

On top of that filing taxes can be done completely online and when you do have questions the Swedish tax agency is actually one of the most helpful and professional service that I have encountered.

Don't get too excited. Filing your taxes online in the UK is also still largely horrid, and often seems to require either starting afresh (the equivalent of "turn it on and off again") because some unknown error is reported on submission, or just phoning HMRC to talk to someone.

Whether this is because GDS haven't got their teeth into HMRC yet I don't know, but not everything over here is as shiny as some would have you believe.

Actually 'Making Tax Digital' means eventually the manual tax submission will go away. They're pushing all tax returns to be completed via API from accounting software.

Your taxes are probably more complex than mine, but to counter this with an anecdote: I've been using Self-Assessment Online for years and never had an issue with it.

We've had something similar in Denmark for a couple of years: https://www.borger.dk/ (translation: citizen)

English version (smaller but directed at non-citizens): https://lifeindenmark.borger.dk/

It's crazy how much you can do on your own and it leads you to wherever you need to go.

The website also changes the available subjects based on the municipal you live in (as an option to avoid confusion).

Almost every page has been written and updated by one of the departments in the government as noted at the bottom of every page.

Sample pages to look at:

https://www.borger.dk/bolig-og-flytning/flytning_oversigt (landing page with popular shortcuts/subjects)

https://www.borger.dk/bolig-og-flytning/flytning_oversigt/fl... (subjects and Start buttons for forms and guides either on borger.dk or one of the other gov websites such as https://virk.dk (company/business registration/management) and https://sundhed.dk (health database with knowledge and journals)

It resembles MDN a lot. I like the contrast on the page, it's really nice after all the faded blacks that you see around the web.

For years I've often had endless fears when dealing with government departments and websites that are not clear, even more convoluted or not kept up to date. But I have actually found gov.uk to be really straight to the point and concise this past year or so. It's a fantastic change and one that other governments should look at emulating!

gov.uk is state of art can't praise it enough, especially after so many embarrassing experiences with the french equivalent(s)

Other areas of IT around the UK gov are learning from the success of gov.uk. DHSC just set out its vision for digital future of healthcare for the NHS, and it looks very promising:


We had Kuba Bartwicki yesterday in Product Hunt Madrid and it was simply amazing. In this thread you can get a gist of what he shared with us about the goals and tools GDS is using to cause digital entropy.


I know GDS uses Cloud Foundry a lot (as do the US and Korean governments). How much of gov.uk is deployed on CF?

To expand on the other answers a bit, not everything on .gov.uk is actually ran by GDS, but rather GDS provides governance.

I worked on building out a kubernetes platform for a large Government Department. Once a service passes the initial assessment, they can get assigned control of the sub domain and point it at their own hosting.

GDS hosts a CF instance called PaaS (Platform as a Service) which hosts web applications on *.cloudapps.digital but the majority of the actual GOV.UK estate is hosted in AWS, as is GOV.UK Verify. I believe GOV.UK Pay might be on PaaS and a lot of internal tooling is.

(Source: have worked at GDS for the past couple of years.)

GOV.UK Pay use Amazon ECS, not CF. They do this because it is PCI compliant.

GOV.UK aren't quite yet entirely on AWS but are working toward that end. With GOV.UK, all the code is in the open where possible (https://github.com/alphagov/govuk-aws and https://github.com/alphagov/govuk-puppet respectively for the infrastructure).

Source: I used to work at GDS.

It depends on the project. CF isn't the only platform. I've worked on non-CF projects under the GDS umbrella. There is a bit of Azure PaaS and AWS too.

None afaik.

So now that they know these processes are sequential, and commonly used, does each government department still require you to fill out a paper form with your name and all the other same information on it? Or is there a way to streamline someones journey through the bureaucracy digitally?

Absolutely one of the best websites in the world in terms of user interface and usability. I'm always surprised that using this site actually feels rewarding even though I'm doing administrative tasks with my government.

There are a lot of HMRC pages/flows that desperately need the GDS treatment!

As someone who's just gone through the process of becoming a visa sponsor, I'd add Visas & Immigration too!

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