Why we can learn a thing or two from the Government Digital Service


Exciting things are happening over at Government Digital Services (GDS). They are revolutionising the way online services are being delivered to UK citizens, and their approach to this mammoth task is spot-on.They are tasked with slowly transferring the Directgov information portals to a single domain website at gov.uk, and redesigning the user experience to better deliver all the vital information to the public.

On Tuesday, they released a list of their design principles, and what struck me immediately is how each of them is just as important when designing for clients in the private sector.

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.

Many clients in the private sector need to be reminded that the website or web service that is being built is not for them, but for their customers. In the same way the GDS doesn’t design around the “official process”, we need to ensure that the systems we create in the private sector are not based on vague assumptions and in-house terminology that only the client understands.

2. Do less

We’ll make better services and save more money by focusing resources where they’ll do the most good.

Designers are often tasked with doing work that they know will be a waste of time and money, but are hesitant to challenge the client for fear of losing work. We need to be confident in voicing our opinions, and ensure we back up our suggestions with hard data – speaking in the language they understand: business goals, client retention, increased sales, customer service.

3. Design with data

…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 have a whole host of tools to monitor user behaviour once a website or web app has been launched. When working with clients, designers should promote long-term monitoring and evolution, not to get more money out of the client, but to ensure that their site is working for them as an efficient business tool.

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.

We need to promote simplicity above most other things. Just because a client wants everything plus the kitchen sink on their site, we shouldn’t just go ahead and deliver it. Designers need to communicate the importance of usable systems, and move clients away from thinking of sites as merely online brochures.

5. Iterate. Then iterate again.

The best way to build effective services is to start small and iterate wildly.

Clients are always eager to have what they paid for as soon as possible. We as designers  need to do a lot more to explain the benefits of iteration and evolution over time, again speaking in a language they understand: a better user experience will increase the willingness of their customers to spend.

6. Build for inclusion

Accessible design is good design. We should build a product that’s as inclusive, legible and readable as possible.

Thanks to the work of web standards evangelists like Jeffrey Zeldman, these days web designers know the importance of accessibility. But do our clients? Have our clients ever considered what percentage of their users have visual impairments, mobility issues or cognitive disabilities? We need to tackle discrimination-through-design as much as possible.

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.

Yes! This is so important these days especially because of the uptake in mobile web browsing with smartphones and tablets. Designers need to adopt responsive web design and mobile-first approaches into their process and teach clients the importance of designing for context.

8. Build digital services, not websites

Our service doesn’t begin and end at our website.

With the exception of exclusively e-commerce businesses, most clients in the private sector actually deliver their business outside of the world wide web. Designers need to remember this, and ask more questions about the way the client works. Their website is rarely the last interaction with a customer, and is more likely one part in a chain of events, so the more the designers know about the whole user experience, the better equipped they are to design well.

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.

Consistency is so important in making a system learnable, not just across a single website, but across the multiple web presences that a client might use. Be consistent as much as possible, whether designing the client’s website, payment process, social media portal or web app.

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.

One of the best things about working in the web is the generosity and openness of many practitioners. I have benefitted greatly from the willingness of great designers and developers to share their knowledge and experience, and, although our expertise is the key of our business, we take every opportunity to share our knowledge and experience with clients and peers.

But openness isn’t just important with regard to knowledge. In a previous post, I spoke about the importance of using open source as much as possible as a way of empowering our clients. If we build client sites with popular systems like Drupal, WordPress or Joomla, then they are not tied to one web agency’s bespoke system, and can easily hire another developer who can pick up where the previous left off.

Serving citizens well

The public sector often gets berated for being behind the times and out of touch – sometimes the criticism is justified, other times its unfair. But credit, where credit is due – this type of approach to digital service design is brilliant.

I’ve worked a lot with organisations in the public sector, especially in higher education, and I have seen first-hand the difficulty of developing systems that are user-centred, when there are inter-departmental politics, centralised policy making and multiple stakeholders involved. These factors must be multiplied ten times over in central government, so what the GDS team is accomplishing is amazing. They seem to be in touch with current web trends, and actively participate in discussions in the industry, and I welcome that immensely.

The Government has a duty to serve its citizens well in all areas of life, and while there is a lot wrong with many policies and laws handed down by the powers above, it is a relief to see something as important as the GOV.UK project being tackled in the right way.

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