Alpha.gov.uk - A quick usability review

What is it?

Alpha.gov.uk is described on the site as the following: "Alpha.gov.uk is an experimental prototype (an 'alpha') of a new, single website for UK Government. The site is a demonstration, and whilst it's public it's not permanent and is not replacing any other website. It's been built in three months by a small team in the Government Digital Service, part of the Cabinet Office."

What's great?

It's the hub of everything government � almost like the "Google for government". It's a very simple concept - a single UK Government website. Go to a centralised website, type in anything you need to find out from the government and wait for the results. Very straightforward.

Even better, you don't need to read long and cumbersome passages written in jargon - where available on alpha.gov.uk, just use the 'wizardy' tools and step-by-step guides to find answers to some of the most popular asked questions! Also, no more guessing which government department takes care of what - just search for what you want and you should be provided with relevant leads. This is user-centered design in action.

It's not surprising that alpha.gov.uk has received very positive responses and support since its concept was revealed a few months ago. It's very heartening to see that this project was deep-rooted in making the UK Government's online services more user-focussed by providing simple solutions to complex problems. It is rare, novel even, to see a site of that scale built from scratch by individuals obsessed with meeting user needs. This is how it should be.

Alpha.gov.uk has a very clear and simple purpose - help me find what I want and need within the shortest time and simplest way possible. Although most of the content is not fully available on the prototype, a few minutes of browsing shows promising results for the most popular topics.

What can be better?

Now that the prototype's ready, it's time to see what site visitors think about it. It's sometimes difficult to test or comment on a prototype because it isn't always clear if something is behaving in a certain way by design or because of bugs in the prototype. Nevertheless, here are some observations that we made based on a quick expert review:

Homepage

Given the target audience of this site being the entire UK population, we're talking about various levels of experience with the web. Usability testing sessions are a constant reminder of how even the simplest of things can make the difference between completing a task and abandoning one�s goal.

For example:

  • It can be quite easy to miss the 'Browse more' button and second half of the homepage because the page cuts off nicely between the 'Popular tools and topics' and 'Latest news from Government'sections on a 1280x1024 screen resolution. It may be surprising that how scrolling may still be a difficult task for novice website users.
  • Although the 'Set location' and 'Go' buttons have been designed as buttons, they could use some hover-over effects to invite people to click on it.
  • The 'I'm looking for ...' prompt disappears when people click on the search field, which may surprise people expecting to "complete the sentence". It could be placed over the text field instead.

Department landing pages

The 'Department for Education home' link/icon is potentially confusing. It wasn't clear if the link leads to the Department for Education home link on alpha.gov.uk or the external Department for Education homepage. This applies to all the other department homepages on the site.

The banner may also be initially confusing as you might expect it to be the Department for Education's homepage embedded within alpha.gov.uk but it isn't.

Set location

The 'set your location' function is great after the postcode algorithm was improved. The only confusion was the little circle with a number in it. Its purpose is entirely unclear, but when you hover over it the text '4 notifications' appears, that's nothing that a bit of iconography can't fix.

Navigation

Disclaimer: The search-based navigation is brilliant on the homepage and I don't think any complex navigation menu is required there.

However, you could get a bit lost after a while on the site unless you are looking for a very specific thing, find it, read it, and then go somewhere else (which is the main purpose of the site anyway). For example, the 'Related items' section on the 'Guide to Childcare' page could be made more prominent for site visitors who are looking for more relevant information.

Information Architecture & terminology

The 'Popular tools and topics' section could do with a bit more descriptive categorisation - which in fact already exists on the site but on a different page (Tools, Answers and Guide)

This highlights the final point, using consistent terminology across the site is really important.

Overall, this is a very exciting start - think about connecting the hundreds and thousands of government websites to a single hub. The next thing is to find out what the UK actually thinks and see what happens from there!

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