Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

The functional heart of web design

April 21, 2013 -- Gerry McGovern

The fact that GOV.UK has won a top design award shows that the benefits of functional web design are finally being recognized.
 
“Government website beats world's best architects to win design prize,” The Telegraph stated in April 2013. “The much-lauded Olympic cauldron from the London Games failed to win a prize.” The cauldron is an absolutely stunning piece of work and in comparison, GOV.UK looks downright ugly. 
 
Deyan Sudjic, Director of London's Design Museum, noted that GOV.UK is “a reflection of the government understanding how to communicate with the country in a way that works, it’s simple, direct, well mannered.”
 
Design is not just how it looks. Design must also be concerned with how it works. For things to work on the Web they must be findable. That requires a focus on search and navigation. When these are found the customer must be able to do something with them; complete a task. 
 
The nature of behavior on the Web is very impatient and fast-moving. If within a couple of seconds a person does not understand what a page is about they tend to leave. Therefore, we need very minimalist design that clearly and rapidly communicates the purpose of any particular page. 
 
“Why does a straightforward, cut-and-dry website deserve the award?” Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan of GIZMODO asked. “Because of that straightforwardness, actually. There's only one typeface on Gov.uk, and a somber color palette of black and white gradients and classic blue links. There are no Pinterest logos, no blog content, and precious few images.”
 
One thing that is interesting to note about GOV.UK is the lack of news. Often, websites are dominated by the latest thing the organization wants to tell you. If you look at most intranets their homepages are dominated by all the things that the Communications Department needs to tell you. If you look at most public websites their homepages are dominated by all the things that the marketing department wants to tell you.
 
Sparebanken is a Norwegian bank. It faced the classical challenge of serving the customer versus serving the organization. Its homepage and general approach used to involve lots of news and marketing pieces focused on telling the customers things. This led to lots of attractive images and a classic graphical design approach. However, customers found it difficult to complete basic tasks like signing in to their account and calculating loan repayments figures. 
 
Sparebanken decided to radically simplify and truly focus on customer top tasks. Their new homepage is now totally dominated by the sign in process. There are no marketing messages at all. In fact, they deleted 50% of their content. The result?

  1. The sign in process works much better
  2. Use of the Loan calculator increased by 236%
  3. Traffic to the most important product information and services increased by 520%

The final point is the most interesting. The marketing and branding messages that drove the old style design were mainly aimed at getting people to visit product information pages. When they took all this content away—thus simplifying the navigation—they had a 520% increase in visits to the product pages.
 
Web design must be judged by its ability to help people do things. Thankfully, we are beginning to see more and more of this outcome-based design thinking emerging. It’s exciting times. The Web is finally leaving behind the world of print and TV and developing its own design approach.