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Government Websites Don’t Have to Suck — Here’s How

Sarah Chambers
Sarah Chambers

Photo Credit: David Iliff, Creative Commons 3.0

Is it possible for government services to be easy to use? Most of the time — not even close. But the UK Government Digital Services (GDS) team has changed that, taking home a 2013 Design of the Year award.

One of the judges even remarked, “[GOV.UK] creates a benchmark for which all international government websites can be judged on.”

So why is this self-service, government site so amazing? Simple: it puts the experience of the user first. You don’t need to know how the government works to get what you need.

In this post, we’ll take a look at our top three GOV.UK design principles used for this government site and why they’ve made for the perfect user experience.

Design Principles in Action

There are 10 principles in all that GOV.UK follows, which build upon the government’s original seven digital principles. These include: 

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 11.48.03 AM

Source: GOV.UK

These used in combination with the Five Pillars of Interaction Design, which are outlined in the free e-book Interaction Design Best Practices, are good guidelines for any site to follow. Touring the self-service government site, you can see all these principles at work. 

1. Do the Hard Work to Make it Simple 

Many of the site’s sections use self-assessment surveys, asking questions to determine where best to direct a user. There’s maternity leave calculators, and “Do I need a visa” quizzes. While they could have just included a long wall of text, the GDS team took the extra step to make finding information excruciatingly simple and engaging.

You can see a clear example of this in the “Check if You Need a Visa” quiz. The GDS team charted out the common situations a visa seeker may encounter and guides the experience. At no point does the user need to think about more than one criteria at a time. Furthermore, the previous answers are shown at the bottom, and it’s easy to go back and change an answer.

Photo Credit: GOV.UK

Once the user has selected their answers, they are given the right information for their exact circumstance. Think about what this process would look like if it was just a wall of text! You’d need to scan for keywords, try to fit yourself into a category and then find the relevant information. It would be exhausting for the user.

Often the default option to building documentation is a knowledge base article. They are simple to create, and customers can read them at their own convenience. But to make these even more helpful to customers, you can keep leveling up. Simply by adding screenshots, your customers will find documentation easier to use. If you create a chart or a gif, the readability increases 10 fold. While it’s true these tools take longer to create, the benefit to the end user makes it more than worth it.

2. Iterate. Then Iterate Again.

Even though the site won an award in 2013, GDS  hasn’t stopped improving the experience. We found several articles and guides in beta, and while touring the site, we were invited to take a survey.

Here’s an example of the Self Assessment page in beta. There are good reasons for labelling a work-in-progress as a beta:

  • Customers know that if they find something out of place the company is open to feedback.
  • It also alerts users that the information might not be completely accurate.

For something as important and intricate as tax assessment, this labeling  lets users know that a second opinion might be helpful. Labelling an article as beta ultimately just sets better expectations.


Photo Credit: GOV.UK

Getting feedback is an important part of improving a site. Here’s a few questions that you need to consider if you’re going to iterate on the user experience:

  • Do you have a way to get feedback from your self service site?
  • Can customers submit ideas or errors?
  • If not – do you look at the Google Analytics data to see where dropoffs or bounce rates are highest?

Self service is not a “set it and forget it” product. It needs constant audits and improvements to stay up to date and provide the best possible customer experience.

3. Do Less.

“This means building platforms and registers others can build upon, providing resources (like APIs) that others can use, and linking to the work of others. We should concentrate on the irreducible core.” – from GDS Design Principles

It might be counterintuitive to link to other people’s work, rather than keep users on your own site. But GOV.UK’s designers don’t let ego get in the way of providing users with the best service. If someone has already created a better answer, they simply link out to it.  

A great example is the Benefits Calculators page. Two not-for-profit organizations have developed their own benefits calculators that are better than what the GOV.UK originally had. On their page, they explicitly say that the free tools have replaced their Adviser service – saving the government time and money on answering questions that could be answered with a tool.


Photo Credit: GOV.UK

This also helps the government build a relationship with organizations that are working towards better services. By working together, they can get more done, and create a better experience for everyone involved.

Don’t let your ego get in the way and stop designing too much.  If there are free tools out there that can help your customer be successful, link to them in your documentation. Sites like the Google Custom URL builder, or Pixlr (a free photo editor) could be helpful to many customers, and linking to them just means you don’t need to build them yourself.


A government site doesn’t have to be an impenetrable fortress. GOV.UK has proven that if you do a little leg work to make it simple to use, constanly update the site and don’t let your designer’s ego get in the way, you can build a self-service site that users actually want to visit.

In the Slideshare below, we dive further into the best features of GOV.UK so that you can use them in your own self-service design.

If you want to carry on with the lessons from the GOV.UK site, the free e-book Web UI Design Best Practices dives deep into visual design, interface design and UX design. 


Sarah Chambers

by Sarah Chambers

Yoga teacher, self-diagnosed Twitter junkie, and recent import to London via Vancouver. Sarah is passionate about keeping customers loyal through amazing customer service, and works at Kayako ( on content and community. You can find more of her customer experience writing on the Kayako blog (

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