‘No evidence’ of user need for external link icon on GOV.UK

The Government Digital Service has removed the icon that indicates a link will take you to an external page – a box and an arrow – from its flagship site GOV.UK.

External link icon was a cause of confusion for some users – Photo credit: Pixabay

Explaining the decision in a blogpost, Tim Paul, a designer on GOV.UK, said that the team had “assumed that there was a clear need for the external link icon”.

However, he added that in four years “we’ve seen no evidence that backs this up, so we’re going to stop using it”.

Paul said that the icon was “obscure and ambiguous” – it is often confused with a similar icon that means a link will open in a new window and the icon that people associate with the sharing a link.

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It is also not clear if there is a user need for the button, he added, because people do not always need to know if they are about to click on an external link.

The discussion thread of the request to remove the icon on GitHub, where GOV.UK designers talk about requests, expanded on these concerns.

Joe Lanman, design lead at GDS, said that the icon was “adding noise to the page” and could be misleading people.

“If there really is a need, we need to find a clearer way to meet it,” he said.

In his blogpost, Paul said that in the cases where there was a need to alert people to an external link – for instance if it would interrupt them in the middle of a task – words were a more effective way of doing so.

“If your users do need to know in advance that a link goes to another website, it’s more effective to do this with words,” Paul said.

“You can do this in the link text itself, or if you have a collection of links you might want to do this in the immediately preceding text to avoid duplication.”

Paul said that the icon had now been removed from the information pages on GOV.UK and that it would disappear from service pages as other teams update to the latest frontend toolkit.


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