5 February 2012, CILIP HQ (organised by CILIP Information Services Group)
Notes on the day
Geoff Davies, Implementation Manager at the ONS, gave a run-through of the navigation of the newly redesigned ons.gov.uk. Recent improvements include new search functionality, additional synonyms and acronyms and better navigation.
- Several new elements on the homepage will be useful for headline figures – the “carousel” in the centre which announces the latest big releases, and the Key figures panel on the right which is a quick way of accessing the most up-to-date stats for GDP, unemployment etc.
- The UK Publication Hub (link at bottom of landing page) holds all government data, not just that held by ONS.
- ONS YouTube videos give explanations of big releases, and the new interactives are a good way of interrogating data.
- Links to the previous site are obsolete, so if you’ve saved a URL it won’t redirect to the new site, but all the statistical releases have been carried over, so they will be there if you dig deep enough.
Geoff then outlined the basic structure of the ONS site, which is a simple nested hierarchy:
- Business area (section) folder -> each publication has a folder -> calendar entry for each edition -> edition folder -> all content “nuggets” released on that date eg. charts, data tables, summary, statistical bulletin etc.
- Every edition published to the site has a separate release page, which goes live on the publication date (the release calendar includes future publications). Everything relating to that release is accessible from the page – datasets and reference tables are listed at the bottom of the page, and contact details for a named person responsible for that release are to the right.
- The redesigned theme pages, which are launching shortly and will be rolled out gradually across each theme, are simplified and easier to understand, and much more visual than the current text-based version. A moving carousel, in the centre, gives the most recent data. They are a work in progress and will be improved as more pages are updated.
Geoff gave a quick run-through of the navigation tabs across the top of the site:
- Browse by theme – alphabetical index of themes -> individual theme pages, with the most relevant or important content at the top.
- Publications – chronological list, with filters on the right to narrow down content.
- Data – chronological list, search for datasets and reference tables here (not available in publications list).
- Release calendar – all releases, chronologically, including future releases (the landing page only includes big releases). If you click through to a release page there’s a link to all editions at top right, to access previous data.
- Guidance and methodology – gives background on the ONS and data collection, classifications etc.
- Media Centre – includes official statements and releases, and letters correcting misinterpretations of stats in the media.
- About ONS – most useful is the ad hoc research undertaken by ONS, which isn’t searchable in the publications indexes. Go to Publication Scheme under What We Do, then Published Ad Hoc Data on the left.
Continuing problems with the site
The main issue users have raised since the redesign is difficulty in finding content. The ONS has decentralised publishing, which means each department is responsible for their own releases (around 460 staff contributing to the site). This has led to inconsistency, as some staff are reluctant to change old methods or not interested in web standards, and some are just too busy. The ONS are working on solutions:
- training staff on how to tag content with six or seven most useful keywords (too few, or too many irrelevant ones, mean weaker search results), and improving the metadata.
- publishing support team to help departments who are too busy or uninterested.
- health checks are run on content regularly.
- there is pressure from management to conform to the new standards.
We ran through some real search queries for tips on searching the site, with assistance from a member of the customer services team (whose name I missed, sorry!). The main advice was to search through the release calendar using filters as necessary (selecting ‘last 5 years’ clears future releases from the list), and to use the ‘all editions’ link on each release page to locate time series data.
Unfortunately, the practical examples just proved that the search functionality of the site still needs improvement (if a roomful of information professionals struggles to find data you have a problem!). Advising users to call the customer services team with any queries is helpful but no use in a high pressure environment where data is needed within hours, not days – what I really needed were ways of finding the stats myself.
- The redesigned ons.gov.uk site is much cleaner and simpler than the old version, and easier to navigate, but it’s still difficult to actually find specific data. It’s a shame the ONS didn’t take advantage of having a room full of information professionals to interrogate the system further and to make notes of improvements needed.
- Some of the problems the ONS are facing are familiar – they’ve decentralised uploading of content, but some staff are reluctant to adopt new techniques and others are over-keen and tag excessively. This is true of other new technologies being adopted across many library sectors (certainly it applies to social media in the news industry). It’s an issue of good training and perseverance with the new standards, and having support from management is vital.
- Some issues with the redesign are similar to those we’ve experienced in relaunching our intranet recently – lack of redirects from old pages, decentralising, need for training.
Applying what I learned
- The key figures and carousel on the front page of ons.gov.uk will be incredibly useful for finding the most recent headline data quickly (a common query).
- The new theme pages will be very useful once they are launched, as a quick way to access key figures on a topic (another common query).
- I’ll bookmark the ad hoc data page as an extra location to check for data.
- The training also offered some good ideas on how to ensure consistently good content and metadata, which we could apply to any new roles that our department undertakes.