How to achieve the impossible with your web presence

Paul Boag

Large organisations make building and running user centric websites nearly impossible. How then has GOV.UK turned out to be such an amazing exception to the rule and what can we learn from it?

Imagine being responsible for the digital presence of an organisation which runs many different sites. Imagine if that organisation was plagued with politics, legacy systems and bureaucracy. Imagine how hard it would be to ensure online best practice.

I know many of you reading this don’t need to imagine this scenario because you live it. In fact the majority of the clients I work with are in this situation. They do their best, but they are faced with an uphill battle.

It’s therefore all the more amazing when you encounter an organisation that has overcome these obstacles to create a truly impressive website. That is what the Government Digital Service have achieved with the creation of GOV.UK.

A case study in best practice

GOV.UK has just won the design of the year award, beating the Olympic flame and the Shard. This win is quite remarkable for a number of reasons.

It is the first time that a website has ever won the design of the year award, which is remarkable in itself. However, the fact that it is a government website and that it is a site which focuses so heavily on function over form, makes it all the more impressive. GOV.UK is no flashy marketing site. It is a site firmly focused on user centric design and that is what makes it truly impressive.

GOV.UK homepage
The GOV.UK website may not impress with its visual appearance, but it is a shining light in terms of user centric design.

Looking at how the creation of GOV.UK came about is interesting, but I am not sure there is a whole lot we can learn from it. After all every organisation is different and what worked for the Government Digital Service unit won’t necessarily work for the rest of us.

A template we can learn from

What GOV.UK does give us is a template for managing and working with websites in large organisations. We can learn from what they do and the way they do it.

What is more, it gives us a case study to help instigate change in our organisations. It is a shining example of how the way we manage websites needs to change in order to make them truly exceptional. We can use GOV.UK as a template for best practice. A template we can present to senior management as something to be emulate.

I am not suggesting we should emulate everything. For example not all websites need to be a stark and functional. However, GOV.UK has implemented certain practices we should reflect, practices that in the past have met with resistance among senior management. Having GOV.UK gives us a strong argument and proof that there is a better way to run websites.

Amazing documentation to learn from

So what is this best practice that we should be emulating? Thankfully the guys at GDS have carefully documented the way they operate and their documentation contains some great gems that we can all learn from.

From how to phase the development of a new site/service to the different ways you can ensure a focus on users, their documentation covers almost all aspects of web design best practice.

Documentation on the phases of development
The GDS documentation provides detailed advice on all aspects of building and running a large institutional website.

I will dig deeper over the coming weeks

Over the coming weeks I am going to work through this documentation and share some of the best bits with you on this blog. My hope is that together we can build up a case for incremental development and learn something about running large websites along the way.

In the meantime, checkout the GDS documentation and post your best bits in the comments.

Read the Government Service Design Manual