What we copied from the UK, and what we didn’t

When we launched the beta.govt.nz website in August 2013, people noticed its striking similarity to a certain website from the United Kingdom, GOV.UK. That was no accident. The UK website is an open source project that seeks to radically redefine government online delivery and share those innovations with the world. We took them at their word.

But what exactly did we borrow from the UK? And more importantly, what did we do to ensure that our solution meets the specific needs of New Zealanders? The answer to both of those questions is the same: heaps.

To explain, I’ll give you a quick run-down of how we got to where we are now.

Project approach and design principles

When we were first tasked with redeveloping newzealand.govt.nz, we did some early research to see what was happening with equivalent websites overseas. Victoria Wray wrote a short summary of that early research back in September 2012.

We took one look at the GOV.UK design principles, and we were smitten. In time, we formally expressed our own approach and design principles, and you can see that they’re heavily influenced by those of the UK.

Score a point for UK influence.

Problem definition

Next we turned our eyes on home. We talked with New Zealanders around the country to understand the issues they face when dealing with government online and how they think about government information.

We did focus groups, online card sort tests, and face-to-face facilitated testing with early wireframes. All of that problem definition research is publicly available. It shaped our understanding of the local problems we are trying to solve. In addition, the results of the online card sort tests formed the basis of our current information architecture. It’s truly a user-centred information architecture. Our users gave it to us.

Score a point for tapping Kiwi brains to deliver a solution for Kiwi users.

Content prioritisation

When it came to pulling together our early ‘thin content’ for the website, we once again turned to evidence from our users. We gathered analytics from the current newzealand.govt.nz website and from key websites across NZ government, as well as NZ stats from Google’s keyword tracker tool.

That evidence helped us prioritise our content and decide which areas to focus on first. You can read about our evidence gathering in the post, Channelling Sherlock Holmes.
Score another point for local evidence guiding a local solution.

Alpha prototype

We then put that carefully prioritised content into an alpha prototype. Our alpha was a limited release website which we used to test our assumptions. It wasn’t especially pretty, but that wasn’t the point. It was an effective test tool.

We used it in another round of face-to-face facilitated testing with real, live New Zealanders. That taught us a lot about what Kiwis needed to move around an ‘all of government’ website. We shared the alpha research back in March 2013.

Score a point for local, user-centred research.

Early mockups

At this point we started our early mockups for the beta site. The challenges we needed to solve were very similar to GOV.UK, so we adapted their front-end templates rather than start from scratch — with permission and acknowledgment.

It was a no brainer. Let’s be honest, the UK is a much bigger jurisdiction than little old New Zealand, with more resources. The GOV.UK website has over 200 people working on it. We’ve had 8. Being able to adapt the UK code saved us a lot of time and money, plus gave us front end templates that incorporated responsive design from the start.

Score a point for a huge helping hand from the UK. Thanks heaps.

Visual Design

As our front end templates have evolved, the actual code has developed beyond recognition from the UK code. Also, our technical platforms are very different.

However, the GOV.UK front end visual design has remained a cornerstone for us. Why? It’s not just because we think it’s cool. It’s because the evidence that led the UK to simplify their design in order to increase ease of use has been borne out again and again by our own evidence that shows our users need the same thing.

Score a point for UK sharing, plus another one for NZ evidence.

Ongoing research

Just recently we finished our first round of face-to-face facilitated user research using the beta website. We’ll be sharing those findings soon, but suffice it to say for now that we continue to learn from our NZ users, and we’re prioritising fixes and improvements based on what we learn. It’s part of our build-measure-learn feedback loop, which is a fundamental part of how we work.

Score a last point for local research.

Total that up and I suppose you could say the recipe for our beta website has been 3 parts UK influence to 5 parts NZ-based evidence. Not a bad mix.

As you can see, we’ve done major research on local problems, local needs, local ways of thinking about government, and local priorities. And that research has fed into our solution.

Our site may look similar to GOV.UK, but if you take a look under the bonnet, you’ll see a truly user-centred, customised product designed to meet the needs of New Zealanders.


  1. Comment #1. Ross Boswell:

    The website design is clean and works well — We’ll done! However, why persist with “govt.nz”. No other nation uses “govt” as the Second Level Domsin Name for government. Please consider at least establishing “gov.nz” as a CNAME.

    Regards — Ross

  2. Comment #2. Jared Gulian

    Thanks, Ross. The decision to go with .govt.nz instead of .gov.nz for the government domain in New Zealand was made quite some time ago. Regardless of how that decision looks in hindsight, and what other countries do, the .govt.nz domain name has developed into a strong and well recognised identifier for NZ Government online. It’s now the authoritative address. Fortunately, since most people use search and don’t enter domain names or URLs directly, that we use .govt.nz and not .gov.nz has little practical impact in the end.

    Currently, to create .gov.nz, an application would have to be made to the Domain Name Commission (DNC), which controls the whole .nz name space. However, under the criteria for new second level domains, it is almost certain that such an application would fail. A .gov.nz domain would effectively duplicate .govt.nz, and given that .govt.nz is now well established, it is hard to see how it would be a “useful addition to the current DNS hierarchy” [Section 5.4 of the Second Level Domains Policy, http://dnc.org.nz/content/secondleveldomains.html].

    Later this year (2014), the DNC will start allowing .nz registrations directly at the second level. However, a few domains, including gov.nz and government.nz, will most likely be prohibited in order to mitigate any confusion caused by the similarity of such names to current second level domains [p.13, http://dnc.org.nz/content/second_level.pdf].

    So it looks like we’re sticking with .govt.nz.

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