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Let's take a look at why the GOV.UK website is so great!
The Government Digital Service (GDS), who is responsible for GOV.UK, publishes a list of their design principles. Here's number one:
This is not a new concept in design by any means, but I'd argue that this website focuses on user needs more than other government websites. Take a look at this screenshot where I've overlaid each section with its purpose:
Everything in black is focused on navigation: Getting people to where their task can be accomplished. On the desktop site, the only thing you see above the fold is the search bar, a list of popular destinations, and the main navigation. This is a laser focus on getting stuff done, and it's tremendous.
There is an intentional lack of space hungry content (Like banners), because it doesn't help people to get where they're going. This has a few benefits, but I'd like to focus on one:
Unlike most websites, the primary navigation isn't a horizontal bar at the top. Instead, it's laid out like a buffet: a big, wordy list filling most of the page. As of October 2015, GOV.UK contains 180,000 pages. That's a lot of content to design primary navigation for, so the more space they use, the better.
There's always a risk that so much information could be overwhelming, but by adopting a very practical aesthetic and focusing on well-designed text navigation, GOV.UK manages to present a lot to the user without making them dizzy.
Just a quick detour: I like the suggestions box in the top right. Instead of letting the search bar fill that space, visitors are being asked a question as soon as they arrive: "Are you here for one of these popular things?".
For the large number of visitors who are looking for those popular things, this gets them where they want to go even faster, which is a win.
I'm a little confused about the second list of suggestions further down the page, though - five of the ten items are repeated from the first list of suggestions. It would have been nice to see the second list contain popular items that weren't in the first list.
All of this extra space given to navigation has great benefits on the mobile site as well. The horizontal list becomes vertical, and because there's no other content to get in the way, it still gets your undivided attention:
Compare this to the USA.gov mobile website:
You can see on USA.gov that the primary navigation is forced into a "Menu" button in the top right. I've got to tap on "Menu" and then "More Services" before I can even see a link to the Education section. On GOV.UK, I can see it on the front page as I scroll through the list. Quickly reassuring users that they're in the right place is important. You don't want them to give up and leave.
Both websites have a "Most Popular" section, but on the USA.gov mobile site it barely gets started. This is mainly because of the graphics, which take up too much space and don't really help the user to do anything.
This is an important point, because there's a big difference between these two sites: GOV.UK uses far fewer images than its American counterpart. Obviously this is because we Brits are terribly dull, but leaving out graphics means more space for navigation text.
Images can be useful, of course: they grab your attention much better than text, but this cuts both ways: Unless they're extremely well chosen, images hinder navigation by distracting the user from what they came to do.
It should come as no surprise that GOV.UK manages to use attention-grabbing images the right way. Remember this section?
All three of these items are reminders - important things that visitors need to be aware of, even if they didn't come to the site for that reason. These are the only images used on the GOV.UK homepage, and they're specifically used to say, "Hey, I know you're not here for this, but it's important anyway!".
The fact that they're half way down the page just means that they won't be responsible for distracting the really focused visitors from doing what they came to do.
So there you have it. Overall, GOV.UK represents a bold and refreshing focus on user-centric design. This is especially striking because we don't expect it from lumbering public institutions.
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