A dashboard for the UK (and other conceits)

One of the things you will hear from agilistas at GDS and further afield is ‘show the thing’. The idea is that you need to get something, anything really, in front of users (and stakeholders) as early and often as possible to get real feedback about something real rather than just reiterating a set of ambitions or ideas via Powerpoint or Outlook.

It is a powerful tactic.

The thing is though you have to decide on something to actually build at some point.

During our somewhat extended ’discovery’ period we gathered a great deal of information on what our users actually needed and what they expected but at some point decisions needed to be made about how to translate those needs onto screens for them to interact with (and potentially tear down.)

It is at this point that Sharpie scribbles on scraps of paper start taking on increased importance and the search for other inspiring websites becomes slightly more desperate.

We settled on a broad hypothesis to test and a handful of principles we wanted to apply to that hypothesis.

The ONS website should be a data dashboard for the UK.

That simple statement was at the heart of every decision we made and to enforce the idea there were five design principles behind it;

  • The visual identity of the site would be defined by data visualisation. There would be no stock photography or decorative images.
  • The figures would be the headlines. We would make the pages ‘glanceable’ with the key figures standing out and acting as calls to action to find out more rather than hidden amongst dense text.
  • The design would be ‘mobile-first’ to prepare for the ongoing shift of our audiences from desktops to mobile devices.
  • Site search would be front and centre of every page.
  • We would accept that most people come via Google so every page would be a ‘landing page’.

The hypothesis and the principles were entirely influenced by the user research we had up until that point but they were very much my interpretation (with help from my team) so we needed to build something quick, show people and see to what extend it held up.

This has been a constant process now since the launch of the Alpha 18 months ago and over time the site has evolved and some things worked out better than others.

To be honest the thing that has worked least well was the initial main hypothesis — we never really found a way to make the homepage of the site live up to that ideal and it also became clear over time that it wasn’t something that held up as a real user need under deeper scrutiny. The homepage remains something of a quandary to be honest even after all this time.

Also it has to be said that mobile traffic didn’t really grow as expected — I stand by the decision to make the site work well on all devices but we have actually stalled at about 15% of traffic from mobile for a couple of years now. A large enough number to take it seriously but not the explosion other sites have seen.

Our search strategy remains pretty sound albeit it always needs improving. Having the large central search box on each page was jarring for some users initially and we did look at shifting it to the more familiar position on the top right of the layout but actually the feedback quickly reassured us that we were on the right track. The complexity of the site (despite all our efforts) means search is often the most convenient way for users to find what they are looking for so making it a clear focal point on the site makes sense. Externally Google continues to grow as a source of traffic to the site — sometimes reaching almost 70% — so our tactic of making the site more search friendly is also proving successful.

Internally the move to a site without ‘decoration’ was sometimes a little controversial — a lot of effort had been made in the months preceding the new project to make the ONS website more inviting and that had included a lot of images and colourful infographics — much of which we stripped away.

The reality is that users either didn’t notice that the images had gone (as they had always subconsciously dismissed them) or appreciated the new clean and focused look of the site. The prominence of charts and other data visualisations was immediately (and remains) popular. I have to be honest if I had remained product lead for the site I would have softened my stance on this over time — I think we had to clear the decks and then make some sensible decisions about the wider user of imagery longer term but the decision still seems valid.

So that is a little bit of behind the scenes information about why the site looks like it does these days — thanks to Jonathan, the team at CX and Onkar all of whom were instrumental in the thinking behind it all — and to Crispin and Jon who ended up building an awful lot of it!