Should government websites look fancy?

Recent years have seen in increase in government websites stepping away from the traditional ‘template’ for government sites (especially local authorities), towards more user-centred modern-looking interfaces. – a pioneer

In the past, most local authorities websites were organised using the same structure based on the [EDIT: replaced LGSL by LGNL] Local Government Navigation List (LGNL) and built upon ‘rigid’ old-fashioned platforms.

Milton Keynes website homepage
Milton Keynes website homepage was one of the pioneers to adopt a more user-centred approach to their website design. You can download the case study for Liverpool City Council website redesign.pdf.

The driving force of GOV.UK

More recently, the Government Digital Services team (GDS) has done a great job not only by re-branding the UK Government’s main website (GOV.UK), but also by being open and transparent about it all the way through the process.

The principles behind GOV.UK are what some would consider common sense, but until now, hard to see applied in government websites:

  • design for your users, keep them at the centre of your decisions
  • use the website to address the need of the masses – rather than trying to accommodate all possible queries
  • keep it simple, straight to the point
  • use your users’ language. Write in plain English
  • add as little content as you need to, to meet your users’ needs
  • etc

Fortunately, the launch and success of GOV.UK has triggered the interest of other government bodies to try and be more modern in the way they deliver services digitally. But how ‘modern’ is it acceptable to be in a government’s website?

My late grandfather used to tell this analogy: when a tree trunk is bended to one side, the way to straighten it up is by bending it to the opposite side for a while.
That’s what I think it’s happening to some council’s websites. They went from being very boring old-fashioned looking, to overly colourful and flashy.

Council websites too fancy?

Take Brighton & Hove for example:

Brighton & Hove website homepage
Brighton & Hove website homepage
  • massive top banner (waste of space)
  • main heading is hard to read over background image
  • carrousel news in the middle of the page (distracting and potentially upsetting to people with dyslexia and photoepilepsy)
  • graphic text
  • inaccessible colour contrast
  • text too small and cluttered

A very recent website redesign was that of

Clearly following on the GOV.UK trend, Manchester have however over-done it (in my opinion).
Don’t get me wrong, I do like dark backgrounds, but I think it was quite a bold decision to make. What tone does a black background convey?
But in my opinion that’s not the worst.

Manchester City’s new website is heavily icon-based, to the point that it becomes overwhelming.
At the top of the homepage one can find an initial row of 4 black icons with white rims and very subtle red detail.
A second row shows a futher 5 icons, with different design style, colour schemes and sizes than the initial 4.
Then a red ‘call-to-action’ button with text too small for an action button, which, upon click, ‘extends’ the page and fills the screen with icons and small text.

As a user, I feel confused by the sudden contrast between a very dark ‘reception’ to the website, followed by a very bland mass of light grey-ness, pinpointed with icons that are too small and with too much detail to be of any use to help guide my journey. Text is hard to read.

Icon filled webpage
Icon filled webpage

Still back on the homepage, there’s a huge promo/news carrousel that is just too much ‘in your face’. Clicking one of the ‘more stories’ button leads to a news page where each news item is presented as a ‘call-to-action’ button, making it really difficult to read (plus that’s not what ‘call-to-action’ buttons are for).

News section on Manchester City's website
News section on Manchester City’s website

Manchester City’s website is an amalgamation of flat-design components, all mixed together is a very inharmoniously way.

I think I understand what they are trying to do (being more appealing and modern-looking), but I don’t understand their content strategy (if it exists at all).
I think some fundamental usability principles are missing.

Referring to my grandfather’s analogy once more, maybe these design decisions by Manchester City are the ‘bending to the other side’, before they finally ‘straighten up’.

Regardless, I appreciate their effort and initiative to change.

But they didn’t get everything wrong. There are two things in particular that I would recommend other council’s to adopt:

1- the feedback option on (almost) every page

Online feedback box
Online feedback box

2- the accessibility options provided, especially regarding colour contrast

Colour contrast options
Colour contrast options

So, what should a government website look like?

Well, there is no one right answer to that, but there are some general principles that should apply.

Government websites are (should be) task-based websites. Even if what the user is looking for is a piece of information, it is still a task. As such, every piece of content on a government website should serve a specific purpose: clearly answer a question or address a need.
This could be finding out how much a service costs, renew a library book online, find out about a cultural event, etc.

This means that government websites should be rid of all the clutter that is not really adding any value to the user journey to complete their task.
Users don’t go to government websites to have fun, so don’t try to keep them on your website more than they need to.

The navigation around the website should be easy to learn. This is so the website is usable for both new and return visitors. Again, in order to make navigation easy, the website should not have ‘clutter’ getting on the way to the user journey, but also have clear points of reference to guide the user through.

The audience for government websites is very wide. In order to accommodate for the needs of the majority of users, the design should be simple and minimalist.

Here’s a list of basic principles I would recommend any government website to abide to:

  • make good use of white space
  • use accessible typefaces and font types
  • use colour contrasts that are accessible and colour combination that are not offensive
  • choose your icon sets and images carefully. They should be meaningful and without much detail. They’re there to guide and give reference
  • take accessibility best practice seriously. It also helps improve SEO
  • keep consistency. A consistent experience across a website provides reassurance, transpires professionalism, and helps the user find reference points
  • use as little content as you possibly can to meet your users’ needs
  • try to keep the balance right between appealing website design and ‘overdone’ design that confuses users

All in all, to design a successful government website one should understand what the users’ needs are and how the users behave online, then design in a way to guide the users straight to what they’re looking for, and let them go.

Because the audience is so wide, keeping it simple and straightforward is, in my opinion, the best approach.

2 thoughts on “Should government websites look fancy?

    • Hi Phil.

      You are right. It was my mistake. Probably the result of thinking too much about LG taxonomies recently 🙂
      We do use and plan to continue to use LGSL in our metadata.


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