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Nick Bennett

Strategy Director

GOV.UK - All Encompassing Portal? Or Just Laziness?

The GOV.UK website has been a topic of much debate since its digital inception over a year and a half ago. With awards and accolades seemingly falling from the adjudicated skies, the GOV.UK website has been held up as a pillar of governmental digital reform. Problem is - it doesn’t work. *The audience gasp* - How could a highly-acclaimed, governmental digital project fail to offer what the people want? By creating a glorified portal instead of tackling the real functionality problems first.

I shall back my claims up with a story. A story that happened to me recently, but most probably also happens to thousands of people every day. After I recently moved residency, I needed to change the address on my drivers license in order to comply with the law. If you didn’t already know, you can actually be fined up to £1000 for not updating your drivers license to align with your most recent address. Obviously, I really didn’t want to risk paying through the nose, so I took to the web to solve this potentially ‘burn-hole-in-pocket’ situation.

A quick google search led me to the ‘change the address on your driving license’ page. “Awesome!” I thought, as I fist-pumped the air. This looked bloody simple. Unfortunately my initial joy quickly faded. I could not have been more wrong. Clicking the enticingly green CTA, I was hit with a surprise. “...Wait a minute. This isn’t the same website.” ...Thats right, GOV.UK had linked me through to their previous DirectGov website in order for me to change my address.

“That’s fine” I muttered, knowing that the GOV.UK website was meant to be a portal, linking me to different resources. I was using my smartphone at the time, and quickly found that the DirectGov website was completely unusable, with only a static desktop version being available. This forced me to stop using my downtime on the train, and instead I waited until i returned home to use my laptop. When I finally did get around to retrying my address change on a desktop browser I reached another problem...

Re-Registration Headache

I started the whole process again by clicking the ‘Start now’ CTA on the GOV.UK portal. Once again, I was hit with the bright orange DirectGov website, prompting me to register.

As I had never used the DirectGov website, and couldn’t remember if I had ever had a government gateway user ID, I decided to register as a new user. I proceeded to fill out the copious amount of forms, and then finally, I was told that I already had an account. This meant I had to go through the ‘re-register’ process as I had forgotten my login. Fan-bloody-tastic.

Resentfully clicking the ‘Re-register’ button, DirectGov continued to taunt me by making me re-fill all of the details I had just entered. As my keyboard hit the wall, I decided to give up. I hadn’t even got to the section for changing my address, before being so frustrated I decided to do it the old-fashioned paper way. So much for design of the year. This does beg the question though, did we really need another empty ‘portal’?

Aesthetics Over Usability

OK, I admit. The GOV.UK website looks amazing. With its clean, flat style, it really gives the feeling of an organised outfit. As soon as I hit the homepage, I really feel that the site is going to get the job done. Aesthetics aside, the Government Digital Service have created a quick and easy way to find needed resources. The problem is, Google gives me similar, or sometimes even better results.

I wanted to know when the next bank holiday was going to roll around. So I did what the majority of people do, and typed my question into google. Google updated their algorithms last year to better deal with these type of conversational queries in their ‘hummingbird update’ (ready for when Google Glass hits the mainstream). Boom. GOV.UK tops the list, and I clicked through to instantly get the information I needed. Impressive right?

So, what happens if I am already on the site and I type the same query into the GOV.UK search bar? The results have no relevancy to my search, meaning the actual knowledge portal is Google, rather than GOV.UK. This leaves a sinking feeling in my stomach, knowing that I need to use Google in order to reap the benefits of the GOV.UK website - well, either that or its the burrito I ate last night. Either way, I’m not impressed.

Functional Farse

After multiple attempts to sort out my driver license address change, which, by the way, I still haven’t managed to stomach, I’ve realized that the GOV.UK website has its priorities in the wrong place. I want to be able to get shit done, and there is no where more appropriate to reduce headache than the official government website. I appreciate the clear layouts, the clever ‘contextual-information-displayer’ and even the effort to show that the government is trying to ‘get’ digital. But... the fact-of-the-matter is:

I would still prefer an ugly website that lets me finish mundane tasks with ease, over that of a shiny layer of paint.