For much of 2019, I led a couple of teams working on the idea of personalisation in government services. I haven’t written about it much because it wasn’t really made known in the public domain. However, the personalisation project has been mentioned in several recent blog posts recently (1, 2, 3) and announced by Julia Lopez MP so it’s sensible to share the thinking we did, to make it open. Sharing our thinking out loud helps the people who come after us, and we wouldn’t have got far on the project without openly available documents of people’s thinking.

Here’s a blog post that sums up our initial 3-month exploration. There was a great team on this and people put in effort generously, at a time when we were needed to work on Brexit-related content projects too.

When the project came to us initially, it was all about working out how we do personalisation, but we flipped that: we asked ourselves ‘What would it mean to personalise the experience of interacting with government?’

Join the dots, expose the seams: making government more user-centred

People only interact with government when they have to – they just want to do a thing and get on with their life. GOV.UK’s job as the digital interface between people and government is to make that interaction as straightforward and convenient as possible.

But we know that sometimes the way digital public services are built can create a hurdle, making it harder for users to finish what they’re trying to do. They might have to click through pages and pages of links, or they might not be able to find the next thing they need to do, or they might have such complex needs that there isn’t one piece of content or a single service that can help them.

That’s why our product teams are constantly exploring ways to make it simpler, clearer and faster for people to find government information and services on GOV.UK. One aspect we’ve been looking at recently is personalisation. Here’s what we’ve found out about how personalisation might work on GOV.UK and what we’re doing next.

Why now?

The digital landscape and how we interact with products and services has changed and, as Jen has pointed out, GOV.UK has not kept pace. There’s a reason for that: we don’t want to introduce whizzy new technologies that could end up being expensive or harmful, which is why we keep things simple.

As designers and technologists, we keep an eye on these things and work out when it’s appropriate to apply new methods based on user needs.

And it’s clear that on GOV.UK, we’re now in a strong position to look at what personalisation might mean for users. Over the last 7 years, we’ve taken nearly 2,000 government websites and combined them into a single site. We’ve worked to improve the structure and links between the content, now we have a base from which we can truly meet user needs and design content and services around them.

Our teams and teams across government also have strong data and design functions: our cross-domain analytics allow us to see whole user journeys; our Data Labs team can clean, process and analyse large datasets; and there are more service designers embedded within teams across government.

What we did

Last year, a GOV.UK team started to explore personalisation. Initially, we took an open approach to exploring it as an opportunity space, aiming to learn as much as we could, through interviews, desk research and speculative designs.

GOV.UK is sometimes compared to web services like Facebook, Amazon or Google, but unlike those private-sector services, GOV.UK isn’t motivated by clicks or increasing engagement; rather, we’re interested in minimising the time people spend on GOV.UK – we want people to be able do the things they need to do and get on with their lives. So we needed to understand what tailoring services and content means in the government domain, for creating public value not profit.

To make a distinction and learn about their approaches, our desk research detailed personalisation in services offered by the BBC, Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter and Amazon.

It’s been useful in helping us break down the word ‘personalisation’ into more tangible definitions, to show how those dynamic interactive services work. For example: Facebook requires users to have an account and tailors its service based on personal data; whereas Amazon and the BBC make product recommendations based on browsing behaviour and aggregated, non-personal analytics. You don’t need to sign in to see a relevant recommendation.

We also interviewed 8 international governments – including Estonia, New Zealand, Finland and the Netherlands – the BBC, and senior stakeholders at GDS, to get their take on the opportunities. After poring through the research and affinity-mapping our findings, we speculated on probable scenarios where we could provide more benefits to users.

We also thought about what would need to be true for the solutions to work. We used seven criteria to place these ideas on a scale of personalisation:

  • What is the assumed solution?
  • What is the user’s motivation to use it?
  • What personal data makes it work (if any)?
  • Do they trust government enough to exchange personal data for value return?
  • How does the user access the solution?
  • What skills does the user need?
  • Does a government department hold the data needed?

By asking questions about the value, viability and feasibility of these ideas, we learned about other work we’d need to do to make government trusted, joined-up and responsive.

The speculative designs helped facilitate conversations across the organisation about what we could do for users, what we wouldn’t do, and unearthed the constraints we should be operating within. For example, suggesting another service to a user could create too much emotional load depending on the scenario. But, conversely, adding reminders to a step-by-step seemed like a clear benefit for complex, multi-part services.

What’s next

Right now, we’re looking for opportunities to build on our findings by prototyping to meet user needs. We’re combing GOV.UK’s feedback channels and previous research to get a picture of the pain points. Next we’ll reach out to our departmental colleagues for research they can share. Then we’ll start designing and rapidly prototyping solutions to those problems, testing directly with cohorts of users. We need to understand users’ behaviours, their approaches to interacting with government online, and how it fits into their lives.

This is not about forming habits or increasing engagement. This is about enabling greater success the first time.

Our main goals are to understand what users find valuable, what helps them get their job done, and what’s feasible for government to build in line with good service design. Using our step-by-steps as a basis, we’ll look at how we can make completing whole services simpler, clearer and faster.

We’re not alone in this and we’ll need our colleagues across government to lend their insights and expertise.

No one should have to understand government to interact with it. This has always been one of our design principles for GOV.UK, since the very beginning, and it’s a commitment that still guides our product teams to make it simpler, clearer and faster for people to find government information and services on GOV.UK.

Let’s better join the dots, and start to expose the seams.

Content strategy: Paola Roccuzzo. Design: Mark Hurrell, Kate Ivey-Williams and Mia Allers. Technology: Tim Blair. Policy: Tom Moore.

The history of personalisation in government

Needs writing.

Desk research

Needs writing.

The problem with ‘personalisation’

Needs writing.


Needs writing.

Responsive government and feedback loops

Needs writing.