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Why we ditched 60 online forms

Whenever I read that a council is reaping the benefits of a digital transformation programme I go to their website and use one of their basic services. I go through the process to report a pothole, to apply for a new bin, or something similar right up until the point I would have to submit the request.

Generally the user experience is mixed and includes combinations of poor design, superfluous questions, jargon, wordy guidance text, and a requirement to create an account. Give it a go yourself and see how much user centred design played a part in their digital transformation.

At my place we have over a hundred online forms now. In some cases they send a simple email, in others they're the front end of a complex business process incorporating other services and applications. I'll be writing about the work we've done for waste services some time in the future.

Last week we finished removing 60 forms from our digital platform. Most had been online for four years, a few were archived, a few had never been published. All had 20 or fewer uses in since May 2014.

Rewind back to 2013 and as part of a project called Choose Digital we re-wrote all our online content and created online forms for as many services and functions as we could. The project was a huge success and in four years we've gone from the number of website sessions and phone calls to officers being roughly equal, to the former being over four times the number of the latter.

With a drag and drop forms builder it's really easy to build a front end, and given this was before guidance like the GOV.UK elements was published, over the following years we found three main problems with the approach we took in 2013
  1. For some forms the user experience wasn't great. You're only as good as the worst interaction you have with that user, so you can spend months creating a perfect digital service, but if the next service they use is awful, that'll be their impression of your organisation, and the next time they need something from you, they might pick up the phone rather than go online.
  2. Creating a lots of online forms is kind of similar to creating technical debt, which means that every time you upgrade your platform or other elements your form uses, for example integration with a back office system or third party API, you need to make sure your forms still work end-to-end.
  3. The biggest problem is if you don't focus on user need then you risk creating an online service that nobody wants. A poor design will reduce online use, but some people will struggle through to the end. A few forms got less than five uses in four years though, meaning it would have been more more effective just to put an email address or a general enquiries form on a web page.
So what are we doing differently?
  1. We ask every user who completes an online form to evaluate their experience and we act on their feedback where appropriate.
  2. We track form use from page to page using Google Analytics' events. This means we can see where users drop out, find out why, and improve their experience.
  3. We're starting to use the Local Government Digital Service Standard. Though this provides guidance for a whole digital service, some points such as "Make sure users succeed first time" relate specifically to the front end. It also suggests to "Build a consistent user experience" including using the Government Service Manual design patterns.
  4. We work with service delivery teams to understand whether there's a real need for a digital service or they just want one because they think it's a good idea.
Choose Digital was already a success, but there's always room to improve, and by taking the approach in the four points above we're creating an even better experience for our users and being a more effective digital team.


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