DI2013: Ben Terrett’s design principles

TRENDAFRiCA February 28, 2013

Design Indaba 2013 in Cape Town opened Wednesday 27 February with various design gurus delivering innovation and thought leadership for the creative industries. A designer that has gone against the grain in development and design, is Ben Terrett, who shared the vision for Gov.uk which is up for design awards.

Terrett, head of design at the UK Government Digital Service, described the brief as the “world’s best brief” and is hoping the site will be voted one of the world’s best designed too. Basically they had to take up to 2000 different government websites across the United Kingdom and condense it into one. The Cabinet Office at 10 Downing Street assumed absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels.

Their original seven digital principles encompassed:

  • Putting the public first, in delivering digital public services.
  • Digital by default.
  • Putting users first.
  • Learning from the journey.
  • Building a network of trust.
  • Moving barriers aside.
  • Creating an environment for technology leaders to flourish.
  • Don’t do everything yourself (you can’t).


They worked off 10 design principles, which have evolved over the duration of the project, and may still evolve:

1.        Start with needs (in this case, the user needs were not the government needs)

The design process must start with identifying and thinking about real user needs, Terrett explains. Designers must design around those needs, not the official process or way of doing things. Those needs must be interrogated and it was worth remembering that users don’t always know what they need. “We use ‘needs’ as an organising principle since people come to our sites to accomplish tasks and to fulfil needs, not just to hang out. Focusing on needs means we can concentrate on the things that deliver most value for money.”

2.       Do less

Government should only do what only government can do, says Terrett. If someone else is doing it, rather link to it. “We should concentrate on the irreducible core. We’ll make better services and save more money by focusing resources where they’ll do the most good.”

3.      Design with data

In this case, users were already using the services of the various government websites and there was therefore real world data which could contribute to learnings before the project started. “This is the great advantage of digital services — we can watch and learn from user behaviour, shaping the system to fit what people naturally choose to do rather than bending them to a system we’ve invented.”

4.       Do the hard work to make it simple

Making something look simple is easy; making something simple to use is much harder — especially when the underlying systems are complex, Terrett explains. “With great power comes great responsibility — very often people have no choice but to use our services. If we don’t work hard to make them simple and usable we’re abusing that power, and wasting people’s time.”

5.       Iterate. Then iterate again

“The best way to build effective services is to start small and iterate wildly.” Terrett says release early, test with real users, move from Alpha to Beta to launch, adding features and refinements based on feedback from real users. “Iteration reduces risk. It makes big failures unlikely and turns small failures into lessons. This avoids the 200 page spec document which can turn into a bottleneck. This, again, is the core advantage of digital: we’re not building bridges — things can be undone.”

6.       Build for inclusion

Accessible design is good design. “We should build a product that’s as inclusive, legible and readable as possible. If we have to sacrifice elegance — so be it. We shouldn’t be afraid of the obvious, shouldn’t try to reinvent web design conventions and should set expectations clearly. “

7.       Understand context

We need to think hard about the context in which they’re using our services. “We’re designing for a very diverse group of users with very different technologies and needs. We need to make sure we’ve understood the technological and practical circumstances in which our services are used. Otherwise we risk designing beautiful services that aren’t relevant to people’s lives,” Terrett warns.

8.       Build digital services, not websites

And with digital, service doesn’t begin and end at the website. “It might start with a search engine and end at the post office. We need to design for that, even if we can’t control it. And we need to recognise that someday, before we know it, it’ll be about different digital services again. “We shouldn’t be about websites, we should be about digital services. Right now, the best way to deliver digital services is via the web — but that might change, and sooner than we might expect,” Terrett says.

9.       Be consistent, not uniform

Wherever possible, use the same language and the same design patterns as this aids people in becoming familiar with your services. But, when this isn’t possible, make sure the underlying approach is consistent. “This isn’t a straitjacket or a rule book. We can’t build great services by rote. We can’t imagine every scenario and write rules for it. Every circumstance is different and should be addressed on its own terms. What unites things, therefore, should be a consistent approach — one that users will hopefully come to understand and trust — even as we move into new digital spaces.”

10.   Make things open: it makes things better

Share everything. “We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets — howlers get spotted, better alternatives get pointed out, the bar gets raised. Partly because much of what we’re doing is only possible because of open source code and the generosity of the web design community. So we should pay that back. But mostly because more openness makes for better services — better understood and better scrutinised. If we give away our code, we’ll be repaid in better code.” That’s why, Terrett says, they are giving away all this…


For concrete examples of the design principles, go to: www.Gov.uk/designprinciples.


Source: Ben Terrett, Design Indaba Conference 2013


Leave a Comment

Login to your account

Can't remember your Password ?

Register for this site!