Product design direction for Government Digital Service
2018 — 2018
More and more people use voice assistants. That’s especially true for people with access needs, where voice assistants are starting to replace more traditional accessibility tools like screen readers. At the same time, GOV.UK needed an interim launch to start demonstrating the value of the replatforming work, and there was a wider lull in GDS’s product announcements.
Voice struck me as a useful area to experiment with. “Innovation” is a sensitive topic in government — usually because it’s associated with snake oil sales pitches. For GOV.UK, though, making information available for users with access needs or limited digital skills is a core part of the proposition. And sometimes, big organisations need a good, fast-moving story. Traditionally, one of the problems with tools like voice assistants (and machine-learning, and SEO before that) is that they only really have access to commercial data and information — but barely any accurate public service information. Finding a pizza restaurant is easy. An abortion clinic, less so.
I did a bunch of desk research, market analysis and digging into GOV.UK’s new capabilities. I figured out that we could distribute public service information directly to personal assistants using APIs and the semantic web. I realised we could make the content and metadata APIs from GOV.UK step by step and replatforming work for voice. Pairing that with schema.org, we could distribute existing public information and data in a way that voice assistant software could easily consume.
We set up a small agile team to work on GOV.UK voice as a 20% project. To establish the user need, we began talking to providers of voice assistants like Amazon and Apple. (We also needed to talk to them about using our information.) Then we did some prototyping and experimenting. And it worked really well.
Public information from GOV.UK is now available as default on most voice platforms in the UK. This was done without duplicated publishing, and without users needing to install any new software. Other public sector organisations have also started using this approach to making their information available for voice. There’s a blog post about it here, and you can read more about the GOV.UK replatforming work.