Now more than ever, governments must communicate with citizens with timely, accurate and contextual information. Web is now not only the default, but the public health channel. Design systems help this happen.

What is the problem we want to solve?

Governments like the UK and US have invested in creating strong design systems. Check out and The aim is to create a consistent and accessible user experience. Sarah Richards' Content Design provides an insight into the challenge for public sector.

Content Design creates user-centred digital communications. That means finding the right language, telling the right story. Sarah believes every item of content should have a purpose that helps a user learn something, and then do something with that knowledge. Public sector websites are there to serve - and provide clear outcomes.

Design systems are an enabler for this objective. They do a number of things:

  • Consistency: Provide a consistent user experience, including the authority and trust in the information provided. It provides the clarity of language, the desire for a good outcome for the user; the citizen.
  • Efficiency.  Governments - like any large federated organisation - struggle to share best practice. The tendency to re-invent is ever present - through lack of visibility of what has been done elsewhere.
  • Speed. Governments broadcast. They talk to large segments, often everyone. They also narrowcast, talking to specific segments on topics driven by geographic, ethnic, legal, age, employment status based criteria. That means that the content generators have a lot to say, to a lot of people, in many different ways, and under conditions of constant change, while requiring absolute accuracy. There is no annual marketing plan here, stuff just needs to get done.

Collectively, these factors require effectiveness - ultimately how communication is measured.

Apocalypse how

Take the current COVID pandemic. It started as an outbreak, then an epidemic, then a pandemic. We learnt new things day by day. The focus of a whole planet aligned on a single challenge. Arguably, the provision of prompt, accurate, contextual information determines the outcome.

Communication is projected at international, national, regional, and local level. Then dissected by other demographic criteria such as employment status, age, need and so on.

During a period like this (and it’s always something…) we require exactly 0% of our governments’ content generators’ time spent on briefing their agencies to get stuff published. There must be accurate information, now, and in a format we can easily understand.

Bring the design system

Design systems are intended to do this at scale and at speed.

And we have some very strong systems in place: UK.GOV, USWDS. But these are strictly speaking design guidelines. Why? Because they are relatively loosely defined. They have to be - they are intended for use across a very wide variety of technology platforms.

The challenge is that the design system itself is not implemented in a technology. Someone has to build the platform. All that CSS guidance, markup advice, responsive behaviour, padding behaviour, colour palette advice, the ARIA tags, interaction principles, layout behaviours still need to be built. Over and over again. 

More seriously, where a set of guidelines are provided, the potential for outcomes to differ between implementations increases. Whether we like it or not, not all technologies render content the same way. Give the same guidelines to two designers, and you’ll get two different designs. Bang goes the consistency, efficiency and speed we are after.

What do you know you don’t know?

Ultimately every design system is a hypothesis until it’s implemented - and not just once, but for every use case it is needed for.  We learn when we see it working. We could do focus groups and market research but - between us - is there budget for this?. 

Your CMS should allow you to publish, re-structure pages (radically - not just swap out content), create new pages, change user journeys, restructure messaging, refine user journeys, publish rapidly, message test, re-create your home page, throw it away, re-act to user feedback, conduct take-overs, pre-prepare announcements, and so on - all within your government’s design, accessibility and procurement framework and without developer intervention.

Lacking user research should not matter, as long as you can respond rapidly to what you learn. Not knowing the future should not matter, as long as you can adapt and the complexity of your audience should not matter, if you can scale to their needs.

So, when it comes to design systems, the execution is as important as the theory.