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Alpha.gov.uk team blog

Broadly, the visual language of Alpha.gov.uk

Alpha.gov.uk is a demonstration of what a single central Government site could be. It’s not Business Link, it’s not Directgov, it’s not any specific department or Government agency – but at the same time it represents all of those, and in a hypothetical future a single central Government site could exist instead of them all (the reasoning behind this is explained elsewhere).

But the last thing the Government needs is an additional website. So from the outset I wanted to make sure we weren’t creating a new entity. Alphagov is the codename for the project, but there is no ‘Alphagov’. It should not have it’s own brand distinct from the UK Government, but at the same time we should not feel tied to existing brand guidelines. An experimental prototype is no such thing if it sticks dogmatically to the old way of doing things.

There are three distinct audiences for the Government’s website; citizens, businesses and more specialist Government audiences. We wanted to ensure that sections of the site aimed at each type of audience had a distinct feel. To achieve this we’ve used colour and typography. Clarendon was chosen as a friendly, familiar typeface for headings in the citizen section of the site, and Stub Serif as a more stately feeling typeface in the Government portions. It’s unusual to see anything other than a handful of fonts online, so by using Fontdeck, a web font service, we’re able to use a more diverse range to add flavour and subtle signposting to the visuals.

In the prototype, we’re representing content relating to each department by using that department’s colours. Individual department logos have been culled and we’re offering their content as part of the UK Government as a whole, but ‘tagged’ as being owned by a department (and each department would still be responsible for publishing their own content). We hope that experimenting with how the traditional structure of Government is presented online will make the site easier to use for people who are perhaps less familiar with Government’s internal machinations.

The homepage was one of the last pages of the site we designed. Search logs from existing Government sites show that over 90% of traffic is people arriving at deep links, typically coming from Google to a transaction page, wanting to complete their task and leave. From this perspective, the homepage is rarely seen and very little horizontal navigation around the site is necessary, at least in the citizen parts. The original concept was to keep the homepage simple, much like Google, but in the end we had to make a few concessions internally and we’re presenting a lead news story as a backdrop to the search, plus some news articles further down the page.

Iconography throughout the site is simple and single-colour, with each different icon representing different types of content. On occasion this was quite a challenge, and in some instances we’re not 100% happy with the final icons, but again because this is a prototype they do the job of representing different types of content for different users.

The deeper into the site you get the less time we’ve had to spend on some pages, but hopefully the site design gives a broad feeling of the visual direction the Government could take.

Our decisions may be controversial, and aren’t always the right ones, we’re sure. But we have no qualms in admitting that we’re here to stimulate conversation as much as offer solutions. Let the debate commence.

nicepaul
Paul is co-founder of Supernice Studio Ltd, with his wife Relly. Supernice is providing design and content for the Alphagov project. You can follow @nicepaul on Twitter.

Comments (10)

  1. James says:

    Great work on this project Paul, really inspiring stuff and I found myself just browsing round reading content about getting a replacement passport and council tax just because it’s nicely presented.

    That’s doing you a huge disservice though because the reason I got to that content was the simplicity of the UI and the use of smart searching from the homepage.

    Really engaging and easy to use site. Truly awesome job.

    J.

  2. Rob Booth says:

    ” Search logs from existing Government sites show that over 90% of traffic is people arriving deep links, typically from Google to a transaction page, wanting to complete their task and leave. ”

    Couldn’t it also be symptomatic of an appalling home page originally, and so the only way to find things quickly is to go via a search engine, or a site that tells you whereabouts in all the mess to go.

    Personally, I love the homepage and have used it two or three times so far (AND found the results I wanted)

    • Paul Annett says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rob. That 90% is people arriving from external search engines, not the figure for arriving at the homepage and searching from there because they find it “appalling”.

  3. Ash says:

    I like the fact, that the home page for the portal has the search bar as the primary way of finding information. I think thats how most people now look for information on the web, we google it.

    It would be nice if all the different council website used the same look and feel as the main portal. Also, would be nice were I could create an account and add bookmarks to my profile for pages on the portal which are on interest to me. It would be also nice if I enter my NI number and my postcode the portal creates a personalised webpage for all things relavent to me.

    • Paul Annett says:

      Hi Ash, thanks for your feedback.

      Account creation, whilst a nice idea, is a massively sensitive concept for Government. Many people are paranoid about the Government collecting and monitoring them, so it’s hard to do anything that would encourage that paranoia, regardless of whether it’s justified.

      For example, when we ask for your postcode on the prototype the server then sends your approximate location back to your computer which is then stored in a small text file called a cookie, which the site can then access again later. Our server doesn’t store your postcode or your location at all, yet people have already expressed their concern that they shouldn’t even have to give their postcode in case we’re tracking them.

  4. Joe says:

    I like the search that is front and center. I think when you get a body of information that is huge – like a giant government site, then a manually constructed IA for main navigation tends to be less useful. Even in IAs that I have built myself, I have been unable to find things later and tend to search. I notice the US state of Texas site similarly has search very prominently offered. http://www.texas.gov. The general use pattern of the Internet has evolved to be very search centric and I think it is best to offer content in a way that users are accustomed to finding it.

  5. Susan Parker says:

    I echo some of the questions/comments left so far. We too are tempted by the Google approach, and have similar observations about users hitting our site via deep links. But that doesn’t necessarily obviate the need for good global navigation, or a content-rich (but not overwhelming/cluttered) homepage. What about user “wayfinding” once they’ve hit the deep link, especially if the deep link is not what they were really looking for? Or if there are important services or information the user didn’t realize he or she needed? Neverthless, love, love, love the single site concept. Here in MA we’ve standardized on single URL/brand, but we’re consolidating at the secretariat level (cabinet ofc in UK). This is partly a concession to politics — I’d really love to have a single site.

    • Paul Annett says:

      Hi Susan – we’ve got a concept of ‘relatedness’ whereby if someone arrives on a wrong page from search results then there are links to other similar pages. It’s needs to be made more obvious than it is on the prototype, but that’s one way we’re trying to avoid the problems you mention. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Phil Bradley says:

    Its a shame the clean interface of the front page was cluttered by the inclusion of Government (with a big G) news stories. The genuine public appetite for for this kind of news is almost certainly lower than might be thought.

    USA.gov has managed to resist the temptation to use the channel for communications that might be percieved as political (eg photos of leaders etc)

    Is there any chance of further negotiation on this issue?

    • Paul Annett says:

      Don’t worry Phil – we agree totally, which is why we’ve tucked the news away, a page-scroll down one of the least important pages on the site. Although on the prototype you’ve arrived through the homepage, in reality 90% of people arrive on the guide or tool they’re looking for via Google results (according to data from our analysis of the search logs of other Government sites). In fact, the homepage was the last page we designed when we were creating the prototype.

  • alpha.gov.uk is a prototype of a new single website for the UK Government. This is the team blog about the project.