Home Office – visa application service

The Home Office is responsible for the UKVI Online Application Service – a visa application service that was named as one of the UK Government’s totemic ‘exemplar’ projects.

This means it must be Digital by Default – a continuously improving service that sets the standard for how digital solutions can enhance the Government’s ability to offer straightforward, accessible services.

Equal Experts helped the Home Office build the new service from day one, with the initial release (handling visa applications from China) going live in March 2015. Eventually, the global UKVI Online Application Service will scale to handle over 3.4 million visa applications each year.

How we helped

Equal Experts provided a blended delivery team of consultants, who worked closely with Home Office staff to design a service that meets user needs and internal requirements. We had two main challenges:

  • Deliver a better user experience – so that the frequently changing, complex rules governing visa applications impinge on users as little as possible
  • Adopt new ways of working at the Home Office – replacing a paper-based service with a new digital solution, continuously improved through agile principles

Watch this video for more:

A better user experience

To begin, we worked closely with the Home Office Product Manager to refine, document and prioritise user needs, holding in-depth workshops with internal stakeholders to get a detailed understanding of how different visa products work. These helped us develop a set of user personas to ensure all the differing needs were covered by the new service.

At this Alpha stage, we developed clickable HTML prototypes to demonstrate end-to-end user journeys through the new visa application process. This not only helped us get feedback from internal stakeholders – ensuring the design was robust from a legal, policy and operational perspective – it also let us get early feedback from end users, and give us the confidence we were building something they would find useful.

As delivery began, our user research uncovered more aspects of the service that required further improvement. In China, we discovered that nervous (or uninformed) applicants would submit excess documentation, creating extra work for the Home Office. We helped the Home Office understand that this made further changes necessary – both to the service we were creating, and the policy governing it.

To help, we built a new tool – the Product Catalogue – which allowed the Home Office to model its visa products in a straightforward, consistent way (something it wasn’t able to do before). This fulfilled several functions:

  • Provided one catalogue for all immigration products
  • Codified immigration policy, making it simpler to navigate
  • Made it easier to update systems in line with policy changes

This allowed us to standardise the user interface, content and question formats across the global service, which was instrumental in meeting the objectives of this exemplar service.

A new way of working

Having established firm foundations for how the new service would work, we set about delivery.

Between them, our team of experienced agile consultants covered all the required disciplines of Scrum Master, Business Analyst, QA, UX Designer, User Researcher, Developer and DevOps. We worked closely with the Home Office to embed civil servants and independent contractors into a wider Digital Customer Journey delivery team, which included crucial roles such as a Policy representative – a vital element of the project’s success.

We drove the methodologies followed by the team, starting with 2-week sprints and regular retrospectives, which helped the team get used to Agile working. As the team matured, we moved onto a Kanban/pull methodology with fortnightly reporting.

We also made sure to adapt the shape of the Equal Experts team to the needs of the project, helping the Home Office build its own capabilities over time and introducing collaborative toolsets that allowed the team to scale as new projects were kicked off. In the course of time we were able to establish weekly releases into production – no mean feat for an organisation used to yearly releases.


The public Beta went live in June 2014 – right on schedule. After passing the stringent Digital by Default Service Standard assessment laid down by Government Digital Services, it moved from Beta to Live in March 2015.

Just as important, we satisfied end users too – based on user responses during the Beta, 85% of them felt the new service was easy to use.

We’ve continued to work with the Home Office to improve the service still further, as it rolls out beyond China – using the delivery capabilities it’s developed in collaboration with Equal Experts.