Joanna Blackburn, Head of Digital Communications at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) talks about her teams experience with the move to GOV.UK.
There was an equal measure of excitement and apprehension in the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) digital communications team when we started the GOV.UK transition project back in August 2013.
As one of the first Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs) to move to the single government website, we were acutely aware of the pressure to do it right, and to do it well. GOV.UK is seen as an exemplar in digital, and naturally, we wanted to be part of a highly respected and award-winning website.
As a digital team we have extensive expertise in developing websites and were fairly confident that, whilst this would be a large-scale and time consuming project, we could do it in relative ease. However, we terribly underestimated how the migration process would completely challenge our long-held understanding of website development and digital communications principles and change the way we do digital projects.
The GOV.UK design principles make complete sense, but it still took us some time shake off our traditionally held views on undertaking a website migration project. Here are the four most important lessons we have learned during the transition to GOV.UK:
1) You can’t plan too much. There’s an old adage that says, ‘Failing to plan means planning to fail.’ However, we have learned through this transition that whilst you can plan some elements of a large scale project (such as a website content audit); you must be flexible to allow iteration and testing and adjust your project plan to meet user requirements. This is especially true when creating the information architecture. How we group information internally may not be the same way our users would, and it’s important to listen and act upon our users’ feedback.
2) The GOV.UK project is not just a digital team project. Whilst the digital team may have the expertise in SEO, developing multimedia content, and website analytics, we needed the whole agency’s involvement and support to make the project truly successful. For the team this meant implementing an extensive internal communications programme which included practical workshops, presenting the project’s progress to senior leadership, and working closely with content owners to write content in the GOV.UK style. We also set up a transition blog on the agency’s intranet site to keep colleagues informed to our progress.
3) The ‘big bang’ website Go Live may not always be the best approach. This is probably the biggest revelation for the team during the transition. GOV.UK’s digital transformation process challenged our deeply held website development sequential process of analysis, specification building, coding, content writing, user acceptance testing, and finally, the ‘ta dah’ moment where we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the new website is made live. The Government Digital Service approach is a much more fluid one, where development, testing and refinement are an ongoing process of change based on user testing and need.
4) We won’t always get it right first time. Despite our very best efforts, we will always need to refine and adjust our content and how we present it. User behaviour changes all the time – from the types of devices they use to access our information, to how they navigate a website to get the information they need. That’s why we rely heavily on user testing to make sure any improvements we introduce makes finding information for our users easier, faster and simpler.
As we head towards the final stages of the migration in the next couple of months, we are increasingly gaining confidence in applying the new digital communications knowledge we have learned through this project. Our continuing challenge is to get everyone in the agency to change along with us. I believe we can get more digital champions at the MHRA by demonstrating how the move to GOV.UK has improved our users’ experience in finding the information relevant to them in a way that is clear, concise and accessible.