“Official data, new light” – introducing Visual.ONS

Today, 15th January, sees the public beta launch of Visual.ONS, our new companion to the ONS Alpha website.


Why two sites? A large part of the answer lies in the great work our colleagues in Digital Publishing have been doing looking at user personas.

The Alpha focussed primarily on exploring concepts for a future ONS website that supports our ‘Expert Analysts’ and ‘Information Foragers’, largely in terms of their specific need for quick and logical access to our data and core products like the Statistical Bulletin. While there is some evidence that the Alpha attracted a broad cross-section of user interest, Visual.ONS is a smaller, leaner effort aimed squarely at our 3rd user persona – the ‘Inquiring Citizen’.  This ‘conscious uncoupling’ of personas has allowed the Alpha to be much more focussed, something borne out by much of the early user feedback. It also means that we can use visual.ONS as a dedicated prototype to learn more about how best to support a very different kind of user.

The site’s motto ‘official data, new light’ is a commitment to show fresh insights into ONS statistics from the people who produce the data – our talented statisticians, analysts and researchers. So right from the start, we will be looking at a variety of ways to engage audiences and provide the kind of context that our Inquiring Citizens might appreciate. To achieve this, our content will need to be:

Visual – the clue is in the URL. We want the site to harness the power of graphics to help us connect with our users, taking full advantage of the picture superiority effect. We want to celebrate the value and relevance of ONS statistics through the visual display of our data, using both narrative and exploratory interfaces.

Informative – we want to use the site to explore a variety of techniques for genuinely informing users. As well as infographics and interactive visualisations, we’ll be introducing accessible ‘primers’ that introduce topics and explain the relevance of them by exploring key trends. More than just a landing page for graphics, we want the site to have a strong editorial function that highlights key messages in ONS data.

Relevant – getting to content has not always been easy for our users and while specialist users might be familiar accessing data through our taxonomy, we’re keen to explore other mechanisms for our Inquiring Citizens. So, the site supports tags for content items which we will use in a number of ways, including highlighting the relevance of ONS data to the current news agenda where appropriate.  Tags also represent another way for users to find and share our products in ways that go beyond topicality. For example, want to see our latest interactives? Tags will allow us to provide flexible collections of content that work for users on a number of different levels and we’re keen to explore that further in the future.

Personal – finding out how official data relates to and reflects personal experiences is a key interest of our Inquiring Citizens. We will explore the ability of interactive visualisations and applications to meet this need. For example, our launch content includes ‘How Well Does My Job Pay?’, which provides a fresh take on data from ONS’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings.

Responsive – we are acutely aware that our Inquiring Citizens are more likely than anyone to be accessing content via mobile devices and so our content needs to provide a great user experience, regardless of device. As well as presenting challenges for the design of interactive content, doing this well presents problems even for relatively simple graphs and charts. To explore what’s possible, the Digital Content team have produced some responsive vector graph templates which render differently according to screen size. As well as resizing or restyling graph elements like axes and labels, annotation is also treated differently, with text that would be difficult to render in place on smaller screens moved directly under the graph. The two versions of this migration graphic below provides a preview of that approach in action…



So it’s still early days – we have a lot of learning ahead of us. We’ll use the site to ‘learn by doing’, iterating our content designs and refining our standards according to the feedback of people who matter most – our users. So feedback is really, really important to us and you can do that via email to web.comments@ons.gov.uk. Do let us know your thoughts, both on the site’s structure and layout as well as the individual content items. No matter how small, it will really help us as we move into a new phase for digital content development here at ONS.