We’re mere days away from the big reveal of Alphagov, the prototype ‘single domain’ website which will set a challenging vision of what a unified, user-focused front end to UK government could look like.
I’ve been relatively close to the project, from unofficial chats with project lead Tom Loosemore and others in dingy Lambeth North pubs before the thing had a name, to more formal advice lately on how Departments do their digital communications – and how Alphagov could help them do it better. (Though if I’m honest, an index card saying “F*** IE6” is the contribution I’m proudest of).
Without giving the game away too much, here’s a taste of what’s coming to a browser near you soon, and some speculation on the stir it will surely cause.
What can we expect?
- Beauty. You can be sure of beautiful pages full of lovely icons; elegant copy rendered in carefully chosen typefaces; and bold, intuitive layouts – bringing the look and feel of online govt bang up to date and saying instantly: this is not your traditional government website. Plenty of Alphagov loveliness has already been dribbled onto the web from lead designer Paul. But it’s words, tech and design in combination that will make the site instantly striking and enjoyable to use.
- Simplicity. With a relentless focus on use cases and top tasks, alphagov will demonstrate the potential of the web to distil multiple pages of complex information into simple, easy to use tools. And in doing so, it aims to shunt the notion of government online services on a bit – from producing text heavy pages towards crafting deceptively simple, user-centric apps and guides, served up by the state and made available for re-use wherever they are needed.
- Coherence. Above all else, the alpha site will show what is very hard to tell: namely, what Martha and Tom meant by a single domain for government. Expect to see the first ever coherent presentation of all UK government in any format – one which doesn’t require people to self-identify what mode of user they are, to know which bit of government does what, nor figure out how 820 different interfaces work. It will retain rather than obscure distinctions between government entities, while smoothing out inconsistencies in user experience. The principle I’ve heard Tom talk about here is: “learn once, use many times.” Simplification, consistency, but not homogenisation. (An approach I’m a fan of myself).
- Audacity. Make no mistake; the project sets a challenging vision. It’s unashamedly radical, unconstrained by the realities of how government creates and manages its digital information and services today. But it’s by no means a fantasy either, presenting an achievable vision as a basis for discussion and refinement. It is a given that to deliver and sustain it will take strong leadership and a skilled, multidisciplinary team with serious clout in the centre.
- Incompleteness. You can expect just a selection of stuff, not the whole shebang. The small team has built a surprising amount in short order, but the alpha will have holes (like no content alerts), will have cut corners (like accessibility) and will have made some necessarily populist choices (like redundancy and lost passports). This from the Alphagov about page: “The alpha is not intended to be an instant replacement for dozens of gov.uk sites. Neither is it in the scope to improve the quality of government’s online transactions. What it does do is show a direction for future services.” (May as well read the whole thing here).
- Reaction (and conversation). Expect some press. The team is planning a quiet launch, but the project already has a fat clippings file and the reaction and debate will be plentiful and fascinating to watch, with likely international interest this time too. The team’s blog is up and running and you can expect a series of posts on ‘the making of’ to gather and respond to feedback from users, the digital community and government stakeholders. I’d be surprised if it’s not a bit lively in there.
- Iteration. It’s an Agile project, so you can also expect some changes pretty soon in response to user feedback. Again: not your traditional government website.
So what’s not to love?
From where I’m sitting: nothing. Both in a personal capacity and as head of a central government web team, I see many more positives than negatives in the move to a single domain, for the reasons I gave before. If you started today, you would never build what we’ve got. You would build Alphagov.
More objectively though, people will have concerns – I’ve heard some aired already along the lines of it being too big to work for all users of government services, too ambitious, too much change from the familiar, or too optimistic about simplifying the long tail of government comms and customer relationships.
People might say: define government, define UK, define website. Some might ask: where’s the business case, what’s the publishing platform, what will it cost to scale up to full production? People inside government, myself included, will want to know what it means for their jobs.
All valid concerns, all questions that need answers – but let’s remember the point of the prototype is to drive out these issues, test the theory, show what’s possible, and be able to have a constructive and open discussion based on a common understanding of an actual thing rather than some ambiguous words and ideas.
Want to know more?
The alphagov blog: http://blog.alpha.gov.uk/
The alphagov twitter account: @alphagov
The alphagov team on Twitter: http://blog.alpha.gov.uk/team
These choicey posts on team members’ personal blogs: one by Paul and another by Relly.