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Design Standards Take Federal Websites to New Levels of Usability
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Posted On November 10, 2015
U.S. federal government websites are frequently and severely criticized in the media as “confusing and hideous,” “hard on the eyes and confusing to navigate,” “shocking examples of bad user experience,” “outdated or incorrect,” “embarrassing,” … well, you get the point. In September 2015, the government released the U.S. Web Design Standards, which will be used for all official U.S. government websites. In the past, various government departments had their own sets of rules or best practices, but now the federal government as a whole has a single set of rules to establish not only a common visual style, but also guidelines that provide for easier navigation and standardized terminology.

The standards were developed over the past few years by a consortium of government technology groups led by the U.S. Chief Information Officer (CIO) and the Federal CIO Council, which serves as “a central resource for information on Federal information technology” with the mission to “improve practices related to the design, acquisition, development, modernization, use, sharing, and performance of Federal Government information resources.” Other key partners were the White House’s U.S. Digital Service and the GSA’s (General Services Administration) 18F, which is “a civic consultancy for the government, inside the government, enabling agencies to rapidly deploy tools and services that are easy to operate, cost efficient, and reusable.”

Setting a New Bar

The U.S. Web Design Standards were “designed to set a new bar for simplicity and consistency across government services” while providing “plug-and-play design and code.” The design team openly admitted key problems with current IT practices in the sprawling federal landscape: “[O]ur work happens in silos, under unique brands and programs. As a result, we spend a lot of time ‘reinventing the wheel’—recreating common patterns such as buttons, forms, and search bars—over and over again. At the end of the day, we’re creating poor user experiences, and wasting American taxpayer dollars in solving the same problems again and again.”

Contrary to most projects in such a huge bureaucracy, these standards are really more a set of rules that are clearly presented on a documentation site, which provides code samples and visual style information. The standards’ website is a good example of clear presentation and the skillful use of space, color, and a consistent process.

The standards are aimed at both UX (user experience) design and UI (user interface) design. They are based on the following four guiding principles:

  1. Make the best thing the easiest thing. The web design standards … provide designers and developers easy-to-use tools to most effectively deliver the highest quality government websites to the American people.
  2. Accessibility [should come] out of the box. These standards were built with a priority on 508 compliance and ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] accessibility at every step of the design process.
  3. Design for flexibility. … These [standards] encourage consistency over uniformity, to give the American people a sense of familiarity and ease when navigating government services, while also allowing for customization of each agency’s unique flavor.
  4. Reuse, reuse, reuse. [The standards team] reviewed, tested, evaluated, and repurposed patterns, code, and designs from dozens of government and private sector style guides to make use of tried-and-true best practices.


The standards are intended to end the inconsistency across the various government websites and provide a common experience—from the use of shared colors, terminology, interactions, and navigation. “Our goal was to build a system of components shaped by modern best practices in front-end development and government accessibility standards,” the team notes.

Built with HTML as a foundation, the components were “progressively enhanced to provide core experiences across browsers.” Styles were written with the Sass style-sheet language, and “[a]fter speaking with dozens of front-end developers and designers in government, we sought to strike a balance between modular CSS and code that’s clean and easy-to-use.”

The standards also build on the June 2015 announcement from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that HTTPS would be the required standard for all publicly accessible federal websites and web services. 18F writes that this will ensure “a new, strong baseline of user privacy and security across U.S. government websites and APIs.”

Maturing Egovernment in a Networked World

The United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN) publishes a biennial “United Nations E-Government Survey” that compares the 193 UN member states using the E-Government Development Index, which has three components: the Telecommunication Infrastructure Index (TII), the Human Capital Index (HCI), and the Online Service Index (OSI). In 2012, the U.S. ranked fifth among the nations in terms of index scores; in 2014 it slipped to seventh place, despite well-publicized efforts by the Obama administration to foster transparency and open data (e.g., the May 2013 open data executive order, the launch of Data.gov, and the federal government’s data repository).

The 2014 survey report did note that the U.S. took “important steps to drive technology towards sustainable growth and quality jobs through policies that support innovation and education. It has also customized its digital agenda to fit the new tendencies and needs of its citizens, such as cloud computing, smart mobile devices, tablets and high speed networks.” The recent intention to standardize website construction and appearance to improve the UX and UI will hopefully lead to improved comparative standings in the 2016 survey.

Turning Shining Examples Into Proven Winners

The U.S. Web Design Standards team lists “shining examples” of existing federal websites—HealthCare.gov and those of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—but says that the design work is “time-intensive … and not all agencies have the resources to support it.” The need, they conclude, was “to set a new bar for simplicity and consistency across [team’s emphasis] government services, not just within a given agency or program.” Two websites already meeting these standards are the U.S. Digital Services Playbook and Vote.USA.gov.

“What began as an idea turned into four months of rapid development and iteration by a collaborative team at 18F and the U.S. Digital Service,” 18F notes. “[W]e’re working in the open to create a resource that everyone can own and contribute to. We’ve taken an iterative, user-centered approach to ensure we’re addressing the needs of our users as well as government designers and developers.”

Anyone who has ideas for the future, finds glitches, or wants to report bugs can use the 18F public GitHub repository, which houses the official style guide and component elements. As the system is open source and offers open access to information principles, the site is worth checking out to get ideas and to interface with system designers across the federal landscape.

President Obama’s Commitment to Transparency and Open Government

One of President Barack Obama’s first memos, the 2009 Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on Transparency and Open Government, was based on his belief in the importance of and his campaign promise to increase government transparency. This was followed by the launch of Data.gov later that year, with the goal of making more government data easily accessible to anyone via apps, mashups, or websites. President Obama wrote in the memo, “Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge.”

The months of intense work behind the new U.S. Web Design Standards aimed to improve UX and create even more efficient egovernment. For such a huge bureaucracy, this is a significant project. The true test will be how long it might take to implement the changes. However, if these standards work, they may just lead to overall improvements at state and local government levels as well. We can hope.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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