Governments around the world want to accelerate their digital transformation to offer simpler access to citizen services online and earn trust with effective solutions. This includes things like being able to send notifications to users, providing a single log-in for government services, or publishing public health information in the wake of a pandemic.
What is the advantage of using a design system?
Governments–and organizations–that adopt a design system benefit from an increase in developer efficiency, product consistency, and a faster uptake in digital services.
Government executives are facing growing backlogs of work and constrained resources, but by using design systems there are technical advantages for developers who can increase the speed of service delivery to benefit citizens. In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, governments have used existing design systems to launch public websites rapidly for their constituents, such as the UK government, US government, the Singapore government, and the state government of California.
The advantages are not only technical. Digital services that are more easily identified as official government websites—that look, speak and act like other websites in a government’s online ecosystem—build trust with their users. Trust increases uptake of digital services. Additionally, because users can end up interacting with multiple agencies to accomplish one goal, it is important that each contact feels familiar to them.
At a time when siloed agencies are undertaking digital transformation, a design system provides unifying principles. These principles help make sure digital services are built to serve users’ needs, are accessible, are continuously evaluated, and provide a consistent experience across departments, platforms, and services.
Build a design system from scratch or modify from open source?
Design systems are not new, and there are open source options available. Building a design system from scratch may be the right decision in some circumstances, but there are some myths and assumptions about open source that are worth questioning. For example, open-source is not less secure, and each government organization does not have unique requirements that require a bespoke system. Governments around the world and at every level—municipal, provincial, and federal—provide common services for citizens. Using an existing open-source design system as a blueprint to build from is a great way to get started.
We evaluated nine design systems, including six open-source design systems: four from governments (the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) and two developed by private companies (Ant Design and Material UI). In the end, we chose to leverage the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS). Any government can use the criteria we developed below for help choosing an open-source design system to start from beyond just the look and feel. Leave us feedback in the comments or tell us how you have made this decision in your public service organization.
How can a government make the most of a design system?
The next step of design system maturity in government is improving the rate of adoption across agencies and services. Some development teams see a design system as unnecessary technical debt. Some believe it hinders innovation and stifles flexibility. Others fear having to migrate existing digital services to the new design system. Clearly setting out agency needs, deadlines, and an adoption plan that also considers in-progress projects is essential to uniting teams. Developer teams can work with the design system administrators to create an equitable adoption plan and agencies can assume shared ownership of the design system by contributing new components and patterns. The US and the UK both have models for the contribution that is open to government staff, contractors, and the public. To varying degrees, they also both mandated the adoption of design systems. The UK government created the Service Standard, and the US government passed the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act. Both set standards for government websites and include language about design systems.
Ultimately, no matter how a design system is mandated, it’s important that it is adequately funded and maintained by a dedicated centralized team, and that agency teams can also realize shared ownership. A successful design system—like great software—never stops improving, but it’s going to take effort from everyone to make it so. Designers, developers, leadership, contractors, policymakers, and political appointees all have to contribute.
by Andrew Miller