As a product manager, a part of my role is thinking about product lifecycles and how to manage the ‘product’1 across the stages of development, growth, maturity and decline. That means you also think about sustaining a team and funding around the product.
It can be useful at times. You might realise that your product or service or whatever isn’t really that valuable, and keeping the thing alive is more costly than the benefits it provides.
Conversely, it can be quite daunting too. You realise how valuable the product is, how it’s a key part of other people’s lives or work, and how terrible it would be if the organisation didn’t sustain it.
To be clear, I’m not thinking about this for any particular reason, it’s just something I do often. The way of the product manager is death and it’s useful to think about death – to help you see why death should be avoided.
So anyway, in October last year I was thinking about what it would mean to lose the GOV.UK Design System. No one is talking about doing this, it’s just a thought exercise. After doing a little web archeology, I was reminded of just how far we’ve come. And how many steps back we might take if we were to lose that progress.
The first piece of treasure I dug up came from Neil Williams’s website back in 2010. He worked on websites at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, as it was known at the time, and later became GOV.UK’s product manager.
I joined the civil service in 2003, having previously led a small web development team building sites (actually, e-zines – remember them?) for the likes of BP, Shell, Glaxo and Pfizer at a corporate communications agency in the Docklands. More often than not, any product we built for those big corporate clients was based on strict brand and layout guidelines, enforcing a user experience and navigation in common with the parent site. As such, my first impressions of how government was using the web were coloured by that experience and, coming to it cold I wondered why there were quite so many different looking sites doing quite such similar things across the .gov.uk estate. For me it has long felt like a question of when rather than if the government would become more BBC-esque in its online presence, and the work I’ve been leading at BIS (using consistent templates and a universal top bar to unify multiple sites on a shared CMS) has been a step in that direction.
What Neil’s describing there is bringing some consistency and a joined-up nature to websites inside a government department. Just one. That’s a battle he had to fight and work he had to do to look after the user experience.
The second piece of treasure I dug up comes from Steph Gray’s blog, but it’s a comment by Tom Loosemore.
The last thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nuts to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office.
The review doesn’t recommend that. Trust me! It does, as you spotted, point towards a model which is closer to the BBC – a federated commissioning approach, where ‘commissioning’ is more akin to the hands-off commissioning of a TV series, rather than micro-commissioning as per a newspaper editor. Equally, it recommends consistent, high-quality shared UI/design/functionality/serving. Crucially, it recommends universal user metrics driving improvement (or removal) when content can be seen to be underperforming.
BBC.co.uk has now centralised its UI/design/core-func/backend a lot more than you suggest – there used to be 20+ media players for example. The visual design, and core nav/functional components are now shared, and very consistent, albeit necessarily flexible within bounds to cater for a wide range of audiences. There’s now no mistaking that you’re on a BBC site. And if you’ve learned to use one BBC site, you’ll probably know how stuff kinda works on all other BBC sites. BBC is also moving swiftly to a single platform, and the number of CMSs has reduced by an order of magnitude in the past 5 years. This is a pretty major achievement (all done after I left, natch).
So BBC.co.uk is a single website, with content created and managed day to day by departmental teams on a federated basis, with consistent high-quality UI/design. Cue, major increase in user appreciation, as well as traffic.
The part that’s important in here is how a consistent, high-quality UI and design framework allows a widely distributed, federated ecosystem to produce digital services that look and feel like one thing.
That’s the trick the GOV.UK Design System helps achieve. Thousands of people moving in a similar direction, across multiple different organisations, without being one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything.
That’s one of the ways you create boring magic at scale. By nurturing and sustaining and enabling that widely distributed, federated ecosystem. And why it would be so much harder to make the user experience of the government simple, consistent and welcoming for everyone without the GOV.UK Design System.
Although the team works on a thing used by thousands of other people, it’s the invisible systems work that has a bigger impact. Reviewing. Advising. Organising. Co-ordinating. Triaging. Educating. Supporting. Allowing the innovation happening at the edges of the ecosystem to feed back into the centre, to be consolidated and standardised for the benefit of everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still work to be done to bring some services up to the standards we expected in 2014.
But as the way people interact with digital products and services evolves, iterates and grows, the GOV.UK Design System needs to ride that wave. It needs to take what works well in one place, do the hard work to make that versatile and simple, and share it with people in other places.
It needs to be sustained, so it can keep nurturing that ecosystem which brings us simple, consistent, welcoming services.
It’s a key component in making hundreds of websites and digital services feel like one thing.
You’ll see that over the next few weeks as the latest releases ripple out across the ecosystem.
Some times it’s a product, some times it’s a service, some times it’s something else. The thing doesn’t matter, it’s the thinking about value that matters. ↩
Got comments? Contact me, let’s talk.
There’s a dangerous concept lurking in there: the burden of choice.
Wrapping up my time on the GOV.UK Design System.
Thinking about voice-enabled assistants, learned services, and the immediate hurdles for these products to overcome.