Learning How to Grow Users on a Government Digital Service

by John Durance

Every year experienced civil servants – who might otherwise have stayed, if they could have found a job share – leave the service. The cost of replacing this valuable resource is high, therefore, the Civil Service has set out to create more job sharing opportunities for its employees.

The goal of the project, currently in Beta, is to create a job sharing community for civil servants. I would describe the architecture of the Civil Service job share finder site as being a lot like a dating site. Users register an account, create a profile, search for matches (or get found), swap messages, hopefully find a match, and then start looking for a job share with another user.

From its launch the user base grew steadily. However, as time wore on, Civil Service Resourcing noticed that many users, although registered, had not activated their accounts. In fact, 35 percent of accounts were inactive.

Inactive accounts

To be clear about what I mean by ‘inactive’, I ought to explain that to use the site a user must prove that they are a civil servant. They do this by registering – in addition to their primary email address – their own civil service email address or that of their managers (if they do not currently have access to their own). A verification link is sent to the civil service address and when the link is clicked the account becomes ‘active’ and the user can login.

Improving the user experience

Initially we assumed that the reason for the high number of inactive accounts was because the registration process was confusing, especially the need to supply not one, but two email addresses. This assumption was also fuelled by the fact that we could see a noticeably high number of failed logins and password resets in the site’s error log. We made several improvements to user experience.

Firstly, we added more notification messages to signpost users to the next part of the registration process. We also made existing notifications more helpful. For example, the notification that initially read: ‘An activation link has been sent’ was changed to include information about where the link is sent to.


Secondly, we added a registration progress block. The block appears on the home page to unregistered users. It lists the number of steps to complete registration.


To a registered user, it also displays a progress bar indicating by how much the user profile is complete, very similar to facebook. When the user has completed their profile the block disappears forever.


Site activity reporting

To measure the effect these user experience improvements might have in reducing the number of inactive accounts, Civil Service Resourcing designed a site activity report. This report is generated automatically by the site at the end of every month. The report details the number of inactive, active, and disabled accounts, in addition to the number of messages sent and conversation threads created during the month. These metrics are broken down into several dimensions: role, region, grade etc.

Account activation reminders

We also decided to add a feature that automatically reminds users who have not yet activated their accounts. This kicks into action at 3am every Tuesday. A list of inactive users – who have never been reminded, and who created their account over a week ago – is generated, and a second activation link is sent to them within a reminder email.

Fixing email blocking

After two months we did not see much of an improvement. This prompted Civil Service Resourcing to do more testing. User testing done by a handful of test users revealed that some parts of the service were not receiving emails to their civil service mail boxes.

To explain, when certain events occur the site sends an email alert. During registration, potentially, four emails may be sent:

  1. an activation link to the civil service email address
  2. potentially, a reminder with a new activation link
  3. a prompt to the personal email address that an activation link has been sent to the civil service email address
  4. an account activation confirmation.

Civil Service Resourcing provided us with a list of users who had reported that, although they had registered on the site, they had not received an activation link. On checking our servers, it was puzzling to see that we were receiving responses, from the recipient mail servers, that the emails were successfully being delivered. The problem was that they were being marked ‘unsafe’ and not being delivered to our user’s inboxes.

The solution was to reconfigure our DNS records. We added two TXT records – one for SPF and another for DKIM – to verify that sent email was indeed from our domain.

This is what being in beta is all about: learning about what isn’t working and fixing it. We were fortunate to be provided with heaps of useful feedback from our users and plenty of insights and help from Civil Service Resourcing.