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Creating common ground with design standards

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We have around 700 teams delivering services at the Home Office. That’s a lot of teams, in different locations, working to deliver services that meet the needs of their users.

They’re able to do this in part because of our design standards. These are a collection of patterns and components that we’ve found needs for, but haven’t been documented by the wider GOV.UK elements.

Standards help inform good design choices and are a really good way to share our design standards far and wide. I wrote about our plans to share design patterns to work smarter last September. We’ve come a long way since then, learning as we added patterns and extended the GOV.UK prototype kit for teams across the Home Office and wider government.

Importance of language

One clear need we discovered was clarity of language. The words we use are really important.

As designers, we need to be clear about what we mean. Other professions use words like patterns, but they use them to describe different things. This has caused trouble in teams, for example when an architecture pattern conflicted with a design pattern.

Sharing our patterns and, importantly, the intent and the problem the pattern solves is crucial to avoid tensions and disagreements in teams.

Documenting standards helps designers do this. It lets us share the evidence about what works and what doesn’t. It becomes a single source of truth.

A vintage cabinet with many small drawers. How design patterns might once have been kept and organised
How design patterns might once have been kept and organised

The role of open design

Design standards do a great job of showing the role of design in delivering user centred services. By documenting findings, we’re transparent about what’s worked and why.

Design patterns can’t replace designers or hard work. The challenge is still to understand users and what they are trying to do. But patterns do help. They give designers and teams a solid base to start discovering user needs.

They also play an important role in helping teams that might not have the design resources they need. The design standards can help guide other professions, for example developers or researchers who might need to be a voice for users in the absence of designers.

Remote working

Working as remote teams is challenging. Tools like Slack and regular meet-ups help us stay connected, but it can be difficult keeping up with what everyone is working on.

Design standards effectively force designers to work in the open. This helps increase quality because patterns have documented research findings - proving they have been used by real users and have met a need.

It also gives designers a place to share ideas, learn from others and build a community. We post interesting resources and prototyping tools we’ve found and share experimental ideas. All in the open.

These experiences have helped us iterate our goals for the project by allowing us to:

  • create a common design language across the organisation
  • create a single source of truth so teams can understand the role of design in services
  • help designers in different locations work together

We’ve found a lot more patterns and components that need documenting, but I’d love your thoughts on our work so far. Have a look at the design standards and let me know what you think.

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