UK Government Website Wipes Floor with US Counterpart
Tea, withering sarcasm, Sherlock Holmes television shows — the United Kingdom has Americans beat on a lot of fronts already. Now, they can officially add website-interface design to the list.
The U.K. government services website, gov.uk, recently won the prestigious 2013 Best Design of the Year award by the Design Museum of London — beating out not only other websites, but also cars, buildings and other inventions.
Yeah, a government website won a design award.
Anyone who’s ever applied for a driver’s license renewal knows that visiting a government website isn’t the most pleasant user experience. So when a government website — or a government anything — wins a design award, it had better be good.
To find out, we compared the U.K. government’s official Web portal with the U.S. government equivalent, usa.gov. Let’s see how they stack up.
At first glance, gov.uk doesn’t look like much. It’s a simple, text-based page with a lot of white space and a big green box that has a picture of a screen with gov.uk uploaded on it. Kind of meta. And the font is good old-fashioned Arial.
The U.S. site won’t blow you over, either. It, too, goes for black text on white background, though the gridlike arrangement of its lists makes it look a tad more cluttered than the U.K. one. And their font choice was the ever-classy Verdana.
The U.K. government site keeps it very simple, with a minimalistic, task-oriented layout. It also really wants you to notice how easy it is to use: The words “simpler, clearer, faster” are just kind of hanging out under the “Welcome” headline. And it pushes the line between simple and simplistic, with a bar at the top that says, “For a safer, faster, better experience online, you should upgrade your browser. Find out more about browsers.”
The U.S. site doesn't really waste any space worrying about whether you're keeping up. But it also fails to address the fact that most people come to government websites not to browse or explore, but with a specific task in mind. Organizing by age group, social media platform or latest news isn’t as helpful as the feature-oriented layout of the British site.
Getting a driver’s license
Here’s a simple road test: On each site, how easy is it to find info on driver licenses?
From the U.K. home page, it takes four clicks:
1) Driving, Transport and Travel
2) Driving Licenses
3) Apply for your first provisional driving license
4) Start Now — to get to the form
And because the site keeps text to a minimum, each step is easy to find.
The U.S. site is more difficult to navigate. The text-heavy pages mean it takes an extra few seconds of reading to figure out where to go next. You can either click Services and navigate through a full alphabetized list, or click Citizens and then Travel, Transportation and Recreation. From there, you need to click Road and Train Travel, not Travel Safety, as I originally selected. Then, click Drivers’ Licenses and Motorist Services. That’s four already. Then you have to click on your home state, which will link you to the state DMV website, at which point federal jurisdiction ends, and you can only hope your state’s user interface looks more like Utah’s and less like New York’s.
Both sites have been formatted for mobile viewing, which makes them easier to read on a smaller screen. But the U.K. site has implemented something called responsive design, which means that from a single source code, the site can automatically adapt to fit pretty much any screen.
The U.S. site redirects mobile users from usa.gov to m.usa.gov, which means instead of intuitively adapting to any screen, they have separate code for every screen they’re optimized to appear on. This is functional, but it’s less elegant and less efficient than the U.K. site.
Although the U.K. government Web portal doesn't look like award-winning aesthetic material at first blush, the site’s beauty lies in its simplicity, which is reflected in the source code all the way up to the user interface.
The U.K. government has even made its source code freely available on programmer site GitHub. Maybe the U.S. Web designers should download it.