A cityscape of Manchester at night.

Windows 8 and GDS; difficult steps in a brilliant direction.

Quick not perfect. Two hours or it won’t get done at all. Comments welcome unless it’s a flame war about Windows vs. Mac because I really don’t care.

I was really happy yesterday to see Ben Holliday tweet his experience with a Windows 8 laptop. He’d stepped into my territory, he wasn’t impressed, and I think his criticisms were largely correct.

What interested me most were the parallels between Ben’s criticisms of Windows 8 and user criticism of the work that’s being done to transform the UK government’s digital services. So in this blog post I’m going to explain why the current state of the UK’s transformed government digital services has all the flaws of Windows 8. I’ll also explain why it should keep going and if possible learn from the fixes that Microsoft has made to create Windows 10.

I’ll use two examples; changing the background in Windows, and settling a PAYE bill with HMRC.


Changing the background in Windows 10

The driver for change in Windows 8 was touch. The old system from Windows 7 (retained in Windows 10, below) is complete and familiar but it is too detailed to be used by touch and not scalable to different screen sizes.

In Windows 10 this process has been enormously improved. A step has been removed between being presented with the control panel (now called settings) and being able to change background.

The user interface is now adapative, from a panel layout on a light background in step 1 on desktop (above) to a list layout on a dark background in step 1 on mobile (below). Icons, descriptions, and buttons are all simplified for touch without removing or hiding any features.

This transition was not at all easy. In Windows 8 changing desktop background was so difficult that YouTube videos explained how to do it. The task required switching between both the traditional view and the modern view and hugely increased the complexity of what should have been simple.

But that step in the middle was necessary. There was no way to jump from Windows 7 to Windows 10. Similarly there's no way to jump from the digital services that the UK's central government is replacing to those that it will have in 3 years time. At the moment we are stuck in the middle.


Settling a PAYE bill with HMRC using gov.uk

Now let’s look at the current state of gov.uk’s site for HMRC, examining something I do every month – pay the PAYE tax bill for my employee.

Straight away we encounter the Windows 8 problem. The legacy business tax dashboard is best accessed via a new gov.uk site meaning that my introduction to the site is a complete change in UI.

But once I’m in, the legacy setup works well. I log in, see the tax I owe, click on it to see a breakdown by payment period, and then click again to be taken to a payment service. I receive familiar visual reminders of the three key details I need to remember; the amount due, the payment period, and my PAYE employer reference.

Well, I say it works well, but in fact it doesn’t work on mobile at all. It’s complete and familiar to me, but it’s daunting to a new user. It has all the problems of Windows 7.

The answer is a new business tax dashboard, which is currently at the Windows 8 phase of development. The UI is well-designed for touch and for different device sizes but over-simplification makes it almost useless. Instead of reminding me of my essential PAYE employers reference I’m reminded when I last signed in. Clicking on the amount of tax I owe does nothing, so I don’t know for which tax period the amount is due. Step 3 of the process is completely missing; unimplemented or hidden within the new service.

Things get worse when I want to pay. Lots of screens, demands for information that has never been presented to me, and reference to a letter that I received nearly 3 years ago. Things have improved since the payment service marked itself as Beta (I do not want to pay my taxes via a Beta service) but it’s still a poor experience.

So there we have it, a rapid look at the similarities between Windows 8 and government digital services. It's clear to me that GDS are on the right path, and encountering many of the same problems that Microsoft did with Windows 8. I'm a bit worried that GDS might all be using Macs and so unaware that most of their problems have already been solved elsewhere. I'm even more worried that their smugness about "user-centred design" might be stopping them from learning from Microsoft's experience.


Adapt or die

Six years ago Microsoft had a choice with Windows. Stick with Windows 7 and keep making small changes, or go through six years of pain via Windows 8 to build Windows 10. They took the hard choice. I think they were right. Google’s decision to add touch to Chrome OS and prepare it for use on tablets confirms that.

GDS are about three years behind Microsoft. Today they’re at the Windows 8 stage of transforming government. They’re moving from a legacy system that just works to a new system with growing pains that can deliver for new users and new use-cases well into the future.

At the moment it isn’t pretty, but it’s better than the alternative. That alternative was to sit back, listen to current power-users, and keep them happy. Or, returning to the computer example, the alternative was Mac OS X — an operating system that has no prospect of supporting touch or the new users and the new use-cases that we are already seeing.


I hope Ben and more people in government digital design get a chance to try Windows 10 soon. I think they’ll really love the insider preview system that updates machines with new builds almost every week based on instant user-feedback. I think they’ll understand even more why GDS and Digital DWP are going in the right direction.

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