Great content is useless when it’s not being looked at

DVLA’s head office in Swansea

I visited the DVLA in Swansea last week with a group of staff from the Government Digital Service (GDS). It was a fascinating day, and I was really impressed by all the teams there, and the fantastic facilities they’ve got set up.


Getting on the phone

One of the most interesting parts of the day for me was spending half an hour listening in to the calls DVLA takes. On Monday, they’d taken over 60,000 calls. It’s a huge and really well-run operation.

Many of the questions asked on the calls I heard are answered by GOV.UK content. But the people calling in hadn’t looked there.

They knew that it was something DVLA deals with, so they called DVLA. The content on GOV.UK became useless.

Jon Sanger from the GOV.UK content team has written a brilliant piece on the Inside GOV.UK blog about how we’ve been working with DVLA to:

  • present their contact information
  • get good content in front of users before they call

But for those that still call, why is that? Clearly there are those users who need help using digital services. But for others who are normally confident users, I think there are 4 main reasons.

1. Victim of your own brand’s success

DVLA is one of the most well-known government agencies. People know that it deals with driving licences, vehicle tax, registration and number plates.

People know that they have to tell DVLA something, or apply to DVLA for something. So they start thinking about the service provider, rather than the service. It’s especially true where the user is aware that not doing something can land them with a fine.

Thinking about a non-government example, imagine you bank with NatWest and have a problem with your account. Would you do a detailed search for the problem you’ve experienced, or search to ‘contact natwest’, because you know it’s them that you need to speak to?

2. People don’t search for things they don’t know exist

Would you search for something that you didn’t know exists? (I couldn’t find one, by the way)

I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t search for something that they don’t know exists. Whether that’s a product or a service.

If you don’t know that you can tell DVLA online that you’ve bought a car, would you think to search for that? Or would you just go back to thinking ‘contact DVLA’ again? Especially if that’s the way you did it the last time you were in that situation.

As more government services are transformed and become easier to use online, there’s clearly more to be done to make sure users know they exist. Which leads me on to the next point.

3. Digital and paper experiences aren’t consistent

A leaflet, application form and vehicle logbook from DVLA

When we design content for GOV.UK, we design with data. We constantly iterate based on user feedback. We use established design patterns to make sure the user’s experience is consistent. We can make changes quickly when processes change to signpost users to the service they need.

But when it comes to paper, it’s much harder to do that.

If you’ve got your vehicle logbook (or a ‘V5C’), and don’t need to make any changes to your vehicle’s registration for 7 years, you’ve got a document that isn’t able to signpost you to a service that launched 6 months ago.

Then every document has a slightly different look and feel. It’s not using a consistent visual language to tell you what to do next. The documents might not have been optimised for the common cases, and they don’t use the language that users use.

Does this lead to confusion that makes people want to phone to get reassurance they’re doing the right thing?

While massive progress has been made in recent years on improving digital services, there’s still lots to do right across government to make the digital and offline parts consistent. User researchers and content designers need to be involved with those offline parts.

4. Bad experience with government digital services or information in the past

If you’ve used a digital service in the past and had problems with it, you’d be completely within your rights to think ‘Why bother? I’ll phone instead — it’s easier’.

All it takes is one bad experience where something goes wrong, and a user’s confidence in government digital services is knocked.

The same is true for information. If you’ve read content that’s complex and full of jargon, you’re probably going to need to speak to a human to get it explained to you.

We can’t do a lot about what’s happened in the past, but we can do something about what users experience now.

It’s why it’s so important that every piece of content on GOV.UK is designed properly, regardless of whether it’s published by the Government Digital Service or a department or agency. It all goes towards reinforcing trust and confidence in GOV.UK.

So what’s the answer?

There isn’t a single answer to the solving this. But following our visit to DVLA, I think these might be some of the solutions:

  • continue improving GOV.UK content based on feedback from contact centres
  • look again at ways of presenting contact information and associated content and services for large organisations that provide services
  • make sure people know that services are available online these days — whether that’s by updating offline materials, working with partner organisations, or using clearly defined communication campaigns
  • start moving to a consistent way of designing offline government documents — whether that’s forms, certificates, receipts or information leaflets
  • make sure that every interaction someone has with a government digital service or content leaves them feeling trust, confidence and that it was easy to use and understand
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