Explaining what you don’t do?

One of the more unusual challenges we wanted to tackle on the alpha and now as we move towards the beta is how we explain to users that there are statistical areas that ONS and therefore our website doesn’t cover.

For internal staff or experienced government statistics users it may seem obvious that if you want road traffic accidents you go to Department for Transport (DfT) or if you want GSCE results you go to the Department for Education (DfE). However it is clear that there is an expectation, quite understandably, amongst many users that ONS do all these things and they are therefore available from our website. Added to this confusion there are other areas, such as crime, where we produce statistics but so do other departments.

This is not helped by the fact that historically the website did, or at least appeared to.

A bit of history

When I started working at ONS in 2006 on a previous incarnation of the website we had a different remit from the current site. National Statistics online (or NS online as it tended to be known) was expected to maintain a record of all National Statistics produced across government and, where these where not produced by ONS, links to the page on the appropriate departmental website were provided.

When the Publication hub1 was launched in 2008 this took on the mantle of being home to National Statistics (as well as by then official statistics) and NS online ceased to be, becoming the ONS website, covering only ONS statistics. It was this ONS website that was replaced by the current site in 2011.

Various strangeness with URLs, redirects, similar design and a lack of clarity between the roles of the hub and ONS website added to the problem and perhaps added to the confusion we are working to resolve now.

  1. The publication hub has now been replaced by the statistical calendar on GOV.UK.

Effect on the alpha prototype

One of the major criticisms, justifiably, of the current ONS website is our search. We know there are many problems with this, but from our research and talking to users it is clear that people looking for statistics that are simply not there has contributed to the negative impression of it.

We knew that search would be a big focus for our development and wanted to help people get to where they wanted to be, giving users a better experience and as a result avoiding criticism that users could not find things that were not there. We were also aware that simplifying our taxonomy and removing areas where ONS do not produce statistics could exacerbate the problem for the alpha.

What we did

As an alpha we knew that we would get a lot more traffic through the homepage than you might usually expect, so this made a logical place to start and gave us a good opportunity to give people a clear impression of what ONS and the alpha contained. Additionally we tried to clarify signposting to GOV.UK (who hold most other official government statistics) and the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland statistics sites were provided to hopefully give the impression that more data was also available elsewhere.

Our main aim however was to offer something through search to better highlight where statistics were available, and we came up with the solution shown in this screenshot.


In this example a search for ‘education’ returns a box on the right hand side of the search results suggesting that the Department for Education may be worth a visit. This same functionality will also appear in places where we do return results, such as in a search for ‘crime’.


This is populated from a simple lookup table we created within the team and currently only contains key terms for a small number of departments.

Moving to the beta

Whilst not conclusive we did receive feedback questioning where certain data (that ONS does not produce) was on the alpha, however none of these queries overlapped with areas covered by our lookup table. We will be looking to test this further as we progress.

Moving forward we are planning to expand the lookup table to include a greater number of departments as well as potentially multiple boxes where they are useful, the addition of a Ministry of Justice box on the above crime search for example. We are also looking to revisit the design to see if we can bring greater prominence to these signposts where appropriate.

Additionally we are considering if the same functionality and idea can be extended to help user looking for regional or local data as this tend to be located on one of the other ONS sites, such as Neighbourhood Statistics or Nomis.

What do you think?

It would be great to hear from anyone with similar experiences or any other ideas on how we can help users get the data they need. Email any comments or suggestions to web.comments@ons.gsi.gov.uk