Why you should care about .gov design principles

Richard April 18th 2016

In April 2014 the government launched its Digital by Default Service Standard. Its aim - to provide a standard for designing and building user focused services that meet the criteria set out in the Government Digital Strategy of 2013.

Cynics could view it as mealy a cost saving exercise (its estimated migrating essential services that would traditionally be done in person on to digital platforms could save up to £1.8 Billion per year) but its also clearly about providing better access to services for all.


Since its launch, government services have been implementing the standard across all .gov systems and that work has seen a huge improvement in usability, accessibility and general UI familiarity. Last year the standard was refined from a 26 point strategy to a more concise 18 points and now includes extensive documentation on how and why it should be followed.




  1. Start with less
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again
  6. This is for everyone
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital serivices, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better


The design principles themselves form a small part of the overall digital strategy, however - their existence is very telling of a welcome shift in policy from the powers that be and is something business leaders should certainly take an interest in.


The rules have been put in place primarily for those involved in the development of .gov services but the ideas behind them have much wider context. The shift in focus to agile methodology and user experience being a key motivator is what makes them so noteworthy. The principles talk of user focused context, iterative design, consistent implementation and making ideas and work open both for criticism and learning. This doesn't sound like typical government mentality to me...



For some of those working in private sectors the principles set out by the government may be nothing new, whats surprising though is the forward thinking approach. We are used to a world where business takes the lead on innovation, striving forward with new ways of thinking, leaving our countries leaders to play catch up on the entrepreneurs as the best ideas trickle down and become standard practice.


If you take some time to read through the principles in full though you'll see there's some very modern thinking in place. It's refreshing to see the government taking this stance when many in the design industry are sadly lagging behind when it comes to developing systems that are truly user focused.


Take principle 5 for instance: Iterate, then iterate again

"The best way to build good services is to start small and iterate wildly. Release Minimum Viable Products early, test them with actual users, move from Alpha to Beta to Live adding features, deleting things that don’t work and making refinements based on feedback. Iteration reduces risk. It makes big failures unlikely and turns small failures into lessons. If a prototype isn’t working, don’t be afraid to scrap it and start again."


That's right - its officially endorsing the development of MVP's and live testing features to see how users actually interact with them. To me, this seems like a major step forward for the Government who traditionally would follow very much a waterfall methodology (let's spend twelve months writing a specification of every feature before writing a single line of code...)


Implementing some of these principles may mean some fairly major changes to processes for both designers and clients. Iterative workflow and designing with data for instance are relatively new concepts (for designers) and for many clients they present challenges in understanding and execution. They are relying on you to provide some justification for this switch in approach. Having the government principles available to point to as a benchmark can be a great asset in your discussions over how to proceed with new projects.



If your involved in pitching for government backed projects then these principles are probably not new to you. Following them are a must and its unlikely you'll win the work without being able to demonstrate an understanding of them and show your intentions to implement. Even if government tendering isn't your thing though, there are many reasons for showing your knowledge and support for them, here are just 3;


They show you care about standards

The corporate world is awash with standards, its normal business practice to adhere to any number of them on a daily basis. Even if a company isn't bound by a regulatory body of their industry to meet certain standards, many do anyway as a mater of professionalism. Demonstrating you too feel the same way about your own work is a great position to start a business relationship from.


They provide a benchmark for clueless clients

For those not familiar with UX, agile workflows and the general ideas discussed above, it can be hard to explain the benefits of such practices. Being able to point to a reputable source of recommendations will be helpful in bolstering your suggestions.


They encourage innovation

The principles set out by the government are about creating well crafted services that provide positive impact on peoples lives. They encourage designers to make the best use of available resources and to not be afraid of trying new ideas and learning from failures before heading down new paths. This is where true innovation happens. If you want to develop systems that truly help people and currently don't have a set of your own design principles in place, the .gov standard isn't a bad place to start.

Author Richard Creative Director

Richard is a designer, whiskey drinker, music lover and Creative Director. After an early career in publishing saw him oversee the production of a range of global titles he turned his eye to digital, managing several design teams in UK agencies before founding Gather with fellow director Paul.