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April 9, 2012 / davebirss

Some great design advice from the UK Government

The UK Government aren’t the first people you’d turn to for design advice, so this may come as a bit of a surprise. The design principles from the Government Digital Service are possibly the best I’ve ever seen. And they extend way beyond the world of digital and design.

Most of them are things that a lot of us are already preaching on a daily basis. But they are so beautifully and economically expressed that I wanted to share them.

These don’t come from me. I take no credit for their genius. And if you want to find them — along with examples — they’re right here.

1 Start with needs

The design process must start with identifying and thinking about real user needs. We should design around those — not around the way the ‘official process’ is at the moment. We must understand those needs thoroughly — interrogating data, not just making assumptions — and we should remember that what users ask for is not always what they need.

2 Do less

Government should only do what only government can do. If someone else is doing it — link to it. If we can provide resources (like APIs) that will help other people build things — do that. We should concentrate on the irreducible core.

3 Design with data

Normally, we’re not starting from scratch — users are already using our services. This means we can learn from real world behaviour. We should do this, but we should make sure we continue this into the build and development process — prototyping and testing with real users on the live web. We should understand the desire paths of how we are designing with data and use them in our designs.

4 Do the hard work to make it simple

Making something look simple is easy; making something simple to use is much harder — especially when the underlying systems are complex — but that’s what we should be doing.

5 Iterate. Then iterate again.

The best way to build effective services is to start small and iterate wildly. Release Minimum Viable Products early, test them with real users, move from Alpha to Beta to Launch adding features and refinements based on feedback from real users.

6 Build for inclusion

Accessible design is good design. We should build a product that’s as inclusive, legible and readable as possible. If we have to sacrifice elegance — so be it. We shouldn’t be afraid of the obvious, shouldn’t try to reinvent web design conventions and should set expectations clearly.

7 Understand context

We’re not designing for a screen, we’re designing for people. We need to think hard about the context in which they’re using our services. Are they in a library? Are they on a phone? Are they only really familiar with Facebook? Have they never used the web before?

8 Build digital services, not websites

Our service doesn’t begin and end at our website. It might start with a search engine and end at the post office. We need to design for that, even if we can’t control it. And we need to recognise that some day, before we know it, it’ll be about different digital services again.

9 Be consistent, not uniform

Wherever possible we should use the same language and the same design patterns — this helps people get familiar with our services. But, when this isn’t possible, we should make sure our underlying approach is consistent. So our users will have a reasonable chance of guessing what they’re supposed to do.

10 Make things open: it makes things better

We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets — howlers get spotted, better alternatives get pointed out, the bar gets raised.

Check out more on the Gov.uk Design Principles site.

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