Calum Shepherd     speaking     consultancy     archive     feed

Product Management Blog

Search centric, informational experiences for public services

People have been looking to search engines to answers their questions for the best part of ten years now. Searching is now baked into our DNA. Got a question? Google it.

We also know that the majority of people who visit public sector websites come from search engines. Think of search as the modern homepage of the web, where once AOL dominated search engines now rein.

There is huge demand. Information from the public sector is helping to answer a portion of approx 40,000 searches a second worldwide.

These searches commonly provide an insight into behaviour, helping us create better products and services for people.

You can read more on how Google provides it’s results through their “how search works” guide.

Search is changing however and we should change our approach with it.

Moving toward conversational interactions

Conversational search, or natural language search, is a series of features made available within UK search engines from 2013.

Conversational search allows for us to interact much like we do when conversing with a friend, through an ability to comprehend natural language.

Conversational search is connecting search queries together as well. You don’t have to think about how you fit everything into one query, as you can refine results over multiple searches.

  1. “Who is the prime minister?” Response “David Cameron”
  1. “How old is he?” Response “48 years (October 9, 1966)”

You don’t have to provide the name twice. Search engines pick up the person in the first search and the reference “he” in the second.

This is made possible through both data from knowledge bases like Wikidata and Google Knowledge Graph. Or, from indexed information from websites such as GOV.UK.

Conversational search and knowledge graph results are making waves, and I’ve no doubt the public sector is next.

Answers are returned directly within search results. It has real potential to shake up how information is presented. It’s a real shift towards search centric, informational experiences

I want to apply for a basic disclosure

Basic disclosure is a transactional service provided by Disclosure Scotland. Information about the service and the ability to apply is available online.

Using this example, we can take a look at a possible future state.

  1. “OK Google” (launches Android search box)
  1. “What is a basic disclosure? Response “A basic disclosure is a document containing information about you that can be used by employers to make safer recruitment decisions”
  1. “How much does it cost?” Response “A basic disclosure costs £25”
  1. “Can I use a credit card to pay” Response “You can pay for a basic disclosure using a credit or debit card”
  1. “How do I apply?” Response “You can apply for a basic disclosure online or by post” (link to apply online)

We already hold data about Scottish public services through the Scottish Services list and the Scottish Government services review.

With both Freebase and Wikidata offering the ability to input data about public services, there is potential to adopt a common vocabulary and link all this up, going some way to realising our example.

Google mobile image


We should accept that we won’t always control the experience for users. The future will likely be search centric, informational experiences that won’t neccessarily result in a visit to public sector websites.

We have an opportunity to provide the data and information needed to support such innovation. An opportunity that helps to support various Scottish Government strategies, including the Government Economic Strategy for 2015.