GOV.UK’s Design Principles are big news for intranets

Screenshot of the GDS Design Principles web page This week, the UK’s Government Digital Service unveiled a list of ten Design Principles. These are intended for for people building digital services under the GOV.UK domain, but I hope they will prove significant for absolutely anyone creating websites, intranets or other digital services, especially for those of us in-house.

The principles are:

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

For a moment, while reading this, I found myself actually shaking with happiness. It felt so good to see so much of what I believe to be true, put so clearly, in attractive way, by an organisation that needs little introduction.

In the next few days, I can see myself, and I hope many thousands of others pointing it out to any passing chief executive, IT director or communications director, and saying “look, the UK Government says start with user needs.”

That might be an attention-grabber, but I’d argue it is an important one.

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
– 1. Start with needs 

Too many intranet projects ignore user needs in favour of organisation needs, and can only succeed by bending employees behaviour to fit the tool (or being very lucky). By starting with the user, you can help people do what they need to do. This gives you something to build on.

Users are already using our services . This means we can learn from real world behaviour … [we should] continue this into the build and development process – prototyping and testing with real users
3. Design with data 

Release Minimum Viable Products early, test them with real users, move from Alpha to Beta to Launch adding features and refinements based on feedback from real users.
5. Iterate. Then iterate again 

Don’t just use logs and other evidence to create your next set of designs, take a leaf out of The Lean Startup and test your theories in the next generation of prototypes. And repeat.

We should build a product that’s as inclusive, legible and readable as possible…We’re designing for the whole country – not just the ones who are used to using the web.
6. Build for inclusion 

It is so tempting to only consider the most likely users. After all, your project needs their participation to even stand a chance of being a success, but they’re not the whole organisation. Often, the people you can help the most are the ones who’re being helped the least.

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. Are they in a library? Are they on a phone? Are they only really familiar with Facebook? Have they never used the web before?
7. Understand context 

Context of use is so important, and has been badly neglected through the computer-browser era. We’re beginning to appreciate the benefits of responsive design (btw. try resizing the Design Principles page) and what that can mean for people using anything other than a computer, but there’s something more. Perhaps your user is in a library on a phone? From this point, things are only going to get more complicated – the era of everyone accessing your intranet from Internet Explorer is over.

Our service doesn’t begin and end at our website. It might start with a search engine and end at the post office.
8. Build digital services, not websites 

For most businesses, an intranet that only exists for what happens online is meeting only a fraction of its potential. If we start thinking of intranets as being the first part of a digital service, we can start to unlock that potential.

 


Book Review: Designing Intranets by James Robertson

I’ve just posted this review onto Amazon (permalink) and it makes sense to publish it here too.

Book cover of Designing Intranets

A great value distillation of years spent designing and understanding intranets, James Robertson has packed his book with real-world intranet screenshots and experiences.

It’s the kind of book that’s handy to have prominently displayed on your desk or within reach when someone insists their approach is best. The first 50 pages may help correct so many dangerous assumptions, that the book could pay for itself in minutes. That manager over your shoulder might like to ponder why the chapter Developing Page Designs appears almost exactly halfway through the book, and home page design is even further on.

Having helped the reader establish the priorities for the intranet, Robertson introduces a well-tested framework rooted in understanding staff needs. After establishing a brand and strategy, he introduces a user-centred design methodology going through a content inventory, card sorting to “understand how users think”, developing (and then testing) an information architecture, before finally getting onto creating page designs (and then testing them). This is a fleeting introduction to these techniques but, for those readers who require more, Robertson is generous with his recommendations.

Some may be disappointed there is not a universal intranet design that will just work, but here they will find something that genuinely adds value. Experienced designers will find details that illuminate their problems or examples to challenge their assumptions. My largest concern is the book focuses on more traditional intranets, concluding with a few short chapters touching on issues including personalisation/targeting, applications, search, large-scale intranet issues, collaboration and social. The advice remains sound, especially in the context of the book’s advocacy of user-centred design, but that might not be enough for some readers.

With that in mind, I have little hesitation in recommending Designing Intranets. There is something useful to be found on almost any page—whether a principle of good practice, an insight, or one of the many screenshots—to provide great deal of help and context for intranet designers whatever their level of experience.

Step Two Designs: Designing Intranets

[Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from James Robertson]