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Opening up the GOV.UK Design System for contributions

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Design System, Service Design, Service Patterns

A series of Post-it notes - one of which reads: 'How to create a design system?' - process

The GOV.UK Design System contains styles, components and patterns to help teams across government design and build services.

Although the system is managed by a team at the Government Digital Service, people right across government can contribute to it.

Service teams in departments and organisations hold valuable knowledge about their users. By inviting them to contribute to a set of patterns that everyone can use, we can reduce duplication of effort across departments. We can scale the Design System to deliver the things users need.

Here’s how we’ve opened the Design System up to contributors.

Building on a culture of collaboration

Over the past 7 years, we’ve worked hard to foster a collaborative cross-government design community that encourages users to share thoughts, work, problems and solutions.

Before we built the Design System we used wikis like Hackpad (now Dropbox Paper) to host discussions about design patterns. This worked to an extent, but there were significant issues with the usability and accessibility of those tools.

There was no clear onward journey for the information and discussions held there, and many users told us they struggled to know what was - and was not - official guidance.

Making the governance of our patterns open and transparent means there’s a much clearer process for people who want to contribute.

How we built a contribution model

Designing a contribution model for an organisation as large and complex as government is difficult and there were lots of things we had to consider.

These were the main issues we dealt with and how we’ve tried to address them:

Working in the open

‘Make things open, it makes things better’ is one of the 10 Government Design Principles. As the principle says: “The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets.”

But working in the open can be challenging. Many collaborative tools, like Google Docs and Dropbox Paper, cannot be used by departments with security restrictions.

We’re trying to tackle this problem with the Design System’s community backlog.

This is a place for teams to contribute new ideas, share work in progress and user research, and discuss existing components and patterns.

A screenshot showing a 'to do' column and an 'in progress' column
The Design System backlog on GitHub

The backlog lives on GitHub, as most of our colleagues in government can access this platform. However, we know that GitHub can be hard to use for people who are not familiar with it.

To help with this, we’ve added a community backlog page to the Design System, where users can see a summary of what’s being worked on without having to visit GitHub.

Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring ways to make the backlog more user-friendly, helping more people to share their work.

Making the system fair and representative

With hundreds of teams in government working on hundreds of services, the Design System’s audience is huge.

Its contents have to represent the needs of its users, as well as users of government services. But we cannot make this happen unless we make our processes representative.

To help with this, we set up the Design System working group - a multidisciplinary panel of representatives from across government who help to quality-assure contributions.

They do this by meeting remotely once a month to review new contributions against the contribution criteria. This is a set of criteria co-created with colleagues from across government, to help establish what good looks like when it comes to the Design System.

A screenshot of the contribution criteria page on the Design System
The Design System contribution criteria

We’ve been piloting this assurance model since February and have conducted regular interviews with contributors and working group representatives to get their feedback on the process.

Based on this, we’ve made a number of iterations, like reducing the number of criteria from 8 to 5 and making them simpler and clearer.

We’ve also tried to make the review sessions more collaborative by inviting contributors along to hear the working group’s feedback and answer questions.

This model is working well, but there are still improvements we’d like to make.

For example, while our contributors and the working group are fairly representative in terms of role and department, we’d like to make it more representative in general by inviting more of our ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ colleagues to take part. We’re also looking at how best to link up with under-represented groups.

Quality versus ease of contribution

The Design System’s contents need to be reliable, robust and of a high quality. However, the more quality assurance measures we put in place, the harder it becomes to contribute.

Balancing the need to maintain a high standard with the need for ease of contribution has been our toughest challenge, and we’re still working on it.

The contribution criteria and guidance on how to propose a new component or pattern or develop a component or pattern help to set expectations around contribution.

However, through user research, we’ve learned people also need time, confidence, motivation and permission to be able to contribute.

Since most users lack at least one of these, we’ve learned our team needs to play an active role in supporting them.

Whether that’s helping them gather research, providing content design support or working with them to ensure their code is accessible, we help contributors make sure their work meets the standard Design System users need.

Steven Proctor, a content designer at HMRC, says the Design System has made contributing guidance on error messages easier:

“We did some work on error messages and wanted to let people know what we had found. Before the Design System became available it was difficult to share what we learned because guidance was in more than one place and contributing was poorly defined.

“The Design System helped a lot, especially the clear way to contribute. We immediately shared what we found and gave people a place to start and something to improve.”

Over the coming months, we’ll keep working with people to help make sure that contribution is a safe, rewarding experience.

If you’d like to help us, you can:

Or, if you’d like to help ensure everything in the Design System meets the high standards our users need, you can volunteer to join the Design System working group.

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