For many years users of the website of the UK Office for National Statistics (www.ons.gov.uk ) have complained that it was hard to find anything, that it was poorly organised and that it was not as good as others. Indeed, I remember being called to a meeting with a previous head of the Office for National Statistics who indicated that senior people in his acquaintance gave the site a ‘C’ rating: he wanted improvements –which did not come in his tenure. Since then improvements had been suggested and implemented but the site did not have a consistent single design approach.
At the end of August 2011 a new version of the site was launched. User testing was very late in the programme but, to be fair, some concept testing had been done with volunteers early in the redesign process. And the result? Some progress but also some retrograde steps. Even since the launch of the new site improvements have been made, for example reducing the depth of the Home page to just one screen’s depth, including time series’ short keys, organising downloadable Excel files better etc.
The latest information releases on the home page used to give the key message of the release next to a small picture: now the announcement is mainly just about the series and not about the key message: clicking on the bar is supposed to give the key message but this is not always the case. One of these issued recently, relating to pensions, showed the bar with the message about a fall in the series; following the link produced information about the publication of some chapters of a book, Pension Trends but did not give the key message or where to find it!
The Home page does not need to show all of the themes of statistics – a tab on the top navigation gives a greater amount of detail. Users who want to get into the data will know what data they want and will try to extract it via the ‘Data’ tab on the top navigation. This tab produces a box for searching to find data; included in the text search it indicates one can search by numerical ID. Not knowing about these, I thought I would try ‘12345’; the response was a suggestion that I might have meant 123.5, so I took the suggestion and was presented with 15 possible reference tables that contained 123.5! Not what I had in mind.
Going back to the data page, I tried my two standard data items, population and consumer price index. For population I was given over 6,000 results and population was first mentioned in the 12th; following this link I was offered a set of tables in Excel within which I found the figure. For consumer price index, the first returned result was about trade in goods; the first mention of the index – in acronym format – was in the fourth item. Use the term ‘inflation’ and one is first given information on pensions; worse, this search produced results where most of the historic data had a release date of 13 Sep 11 – so don’t look for last year’s release of price quotes. Even the order of the results is crazy with no rational ordering by date within the titles of results.
Total confusion exists on the site between what is a press release, a report, a statistical bulletin, a publication, an article and data. Worse, the press releases do not have many simple tables of data within them or more complete tables in the annexes – but these are now provided separately in Excel tables. But what if the user just wanted a summary of the latest information? Tough! And as for data presentation, the ONS seems to have forgotten all about its published style guide! I looked at the release available on 10 November: Monthly overseas travel and tourism – September 2011. The first link gave just the key messages; the page had a link to the Statistical Bulletin (in PDF format) and one to the data. The Bulletin had just one included table – with data not showing the thousands’ separator. The charts are very poor quality but do offer readers the associated data in Excel format. Be aware, however, that the linked tables of data for this bulletin did not have the denomination of the data shown (nor thousands separators)!
We are told the search on the site has been improved. My view is that the both the general and specific searches are atrocious. Users would still be better using Google to find what they want. For anyone who had tried to help specific users (like local authority users) by explaining where to find data etc by the inclusion of direct web references, the revamp of the site has left such help providers with a headache – many of the previous links do not now work. Other countries and Eurostat have made the references to information on their sites independent of where the information is stored – which allows such refreshes of a site to continue to provide the same information with the same link: this would have been an appropriate time to switch.
Overall I have been very disappointed with the revamped site. It does not deliver effectively, efficiently or economically. In fact, it is a mess.
Some improvements have been planned (see link in middle of Home page) and other suggestions for improvement can be sent in to the ONS (email address: firstname.lastname@example.org ).
Happy surfing …
This review was undertaken by Ed Swires-Hennessy using Internet Explorer version 8.0 on 10 November 2011 at 17.30 hrs GMT using a slow link to the Internet (from Albania).
This and reviews since January 2009 are published in the blog; earlier reviews are published to my website, http://www.surfingwithed.org.uk