How to design complex websites – and change services to make them work better – by the Government's head of design

Louise Downe (above) discusses the 5 guiding principles that enable GDS to design websites and other services that are easier for you to use – and millions of other people too. 

Louise Downe is head of design at the Government Digital Services (GDS), the organisation charged with dragging UK government departments into the 21st Century and making their online services work the way you assume in the era of Google search, online payments and digital design underpinned by user experience (UX).

Giving an engaging talk at the UX London conference that was by turns informative, funny and candid, she gave an indication of the scale of the challenges they face – and revealed five key philosophies that drive everything they do, philosophies that provide practical ways to build sites and change services that make a measurable difference to how useful they are.

Louise says that the work that GDS has done has saved the UK government £3.56billion by improving what Louise frankly calls "shit service design". This has largely been by making websites and internal communication of information easier to use so users (and workers) don't need to pick up the phone or write an email or letter – whether to find out what they need to do to make something happen, make it happen or check in to see if it's actually happening.

They still have some way to go. Louise notes that "the eighth most popular page on the site is a phone number" – a page for people looking to contact the DVLA about something to do with their car or driving licence. And with 60 per cent of government spending being on what she calls "calls and casework", that will likely lead to further savings too.

So how do you make services and sites that affect so many people easier to use?

1. "Build verbs not nouns"

"Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns," says Louise. What she means by this is that good services are designed around what you want to do as a user, whereas bad services are designed to match how those providing the service work.

As an example of this, Louise cited a page on the site that used to be called 'Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS)', which is what the government calls the charge some foreigners pay for using the NHS – a term no-one would know if you didn't work for a part of the government.

The page is now called 'Check if you need to pay towards to your healthcare in the UK', which direct addresses a user's question – and is likely to rank highly on Google for people who are asking that question.

2) UX helps everyone

Louise says that most of the time, a better-designed service for users will benefit those working for the service itself – rather than making things more difficult for them (which is often the perception as change can often be seen as a negative, especially within long-established organisations like the Civil Service).

She gave an example of this within the Foreign Office's processing unit for Chinese citizens applying for a visa to visit the UK. Most applicants assumed there were 14 things you needed to send in with a visa application, when in fact you only need five. By designing online and paper documents better to highlight this, the unit was able to reduce their paperwork by 25 per cent around this.

3) Match the way your user thinks, not your organisation

"Most services involve more than one part of government," says Louise, but to make them more easily understood by users they need to be grouped in a way that makes sense to them, not by how the government bureaucracy is organised – eg, into areas such as 'things to do with my car', 'migration' or 'property' rather than by department structure.

To help with this, GDS helps departments collaborate and share information openly about their service design – with the end result (hopefully) being something that works seamlessly and similarly not matter who created the service.

4) "Empower the network"

One important part of this collaboration is GDS' Design Patterns library. This features rules, standards and examples of best practice for online design and communication – from how to design drop-down menus to how to ask questions about gender respectfully (and when it's appropriate to and when it's not). It's used both within GDS and by designers working in departments and local councils – and it can be an invaluable resource for designers working on commercial projects too.

It's a 'living library' and Louise says that this is essential to its usefulness. She notes that most standard are "created once, from the centre [ie without input from those using the library], untested and mostly wrong."

The rules and examples in Design Patterns library are fluid. "We lef people test them and change them," says Louise, nothing that the library has over 700 contributors – from the UK and from the civil services in US and Australia.

5) Everyone is a UX designer

"We don't have UX designers, everyone is one," says Louise. "The user experience is everyone's responsibily."

This is perhaps a controversial thing to say at a UX conference, where a large proportion of the audience are (or have been) UX designers. However, Louise says that making UX a priority for everyone, GDS has helped delivered extremely positive results. Here she cites a part of the DWP site where people who have given up work to look after a partner, relative or friend can apply for Carer's Allowance.

"When it launched it had a terrible completion rate," she says. "We've helped raise that's from 31% to 71%."

This means that (hopefully) more people can access the Allowance more quickly – and get back to more important parts of their lives than filling in forms faster.

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