On the 8th December, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) launched a public prototype website, in its bid to replace the current website (ons.gov.uk) which has drawn significant public criticism.

The ONS launched a programme to address this issue, and following much intervening user research, Methods Digital won a tender in July 2014 to build the prototype (alpha) website as part of the programme.

The 13-week project saw a 7-person team, led by Methods Digital’s Head of Open Platforms, David Carboni, co-located at the ONS in Newport, Wales, to implement an agile project to rapid-prototype the Alpha.

As a result of extensive user research, Matt Jukes, Head of Digital Transformation at ONS, had a very clear idea of what the ONS wanted, and looked forward to ‘bringing it all to life’ so that the research could be validated. The first three sprints delivered a prototype with a comprehensive set of functionality, enabling a mid-project week of intensive user testing and senior stakeholder interviews across government, media and civic organisations. This was followed by a further two sprints to incorporate the feedback and polish the Alpha site for launch.

Methods Digital decided to use AngularJS to implement this website – a choice that has raised some eyebrows amongst the diverse community of interested technical followers, but which allowed the team to rapidly prototype ideas, allowing ONS to see them in action and decide on the best design for their needs. Being a prototype, the Alpha site will not be updated following launch and will be retired on the 5th of January.

A key improvement over the current website is clear separation of data from user interface and URL addressability of individual pages, providing a reliable, bookmarkable web address for each area of the site. Older versions of web-browsers are accommodated through a static version of the website. This has been important because the ONS has many users in institutions where older versions of Internet Explorer are mandated.

Being a data-heavy site, the architecture is an API-first design, consisting of Json files to provide data for each page, with a client-side Javascript application to combine these data with an appropriate template for each page. This approach enabled the ONS to launch the alpha with 36,000 statistical time-series included, providing a significantly larger coverage of ONS data than could normally be achieved in an Alpha.

Given the need for the website to appeal to a wide range of user-types, from concerned citizens to statistics experts, many different page designs were evaluated, both in-house and with users, and having a co-located, versatile team onsite made it quick and easy for ONS to try different designs and ideas, rapidly evolving their thinking (the homepage alone has seen dozens of versions). The website has been developed to be fully responsive, adapting to mobile devices, tablets, laptops and desktops.

User response has been overwhelmingly positive across a number of channels, including Bugherd feedback, email and Twitter, receiving 95% positive feedback. The project has been developed collaboratively, in the open, with the codebase publicly available on Github and project blog on digitalpublishing.ons.gov.uk. The ONS Alpha is one of only a very few public Alphas since the original alpha.gov.uk and we would like to congratulate ONS on a highly successful and well received Open Delivery, which paves the way for the organisation to proceed to Beta.

This Article was written by Myles Roberts,salesforce.com Consultant, Methods Digital.