ALPHA Last updated 2 July 2012

Government Digital Service Design Principles

Listed below are our design principles and examples of how we’ve used them so far. These build on, and add to, our original 7 digital principles.

  1. Start with needs*

    *user needs not government needs

    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. We must understand those needs thoroughly — interrogating data, not just making assumptions — and we should remember that what users ask for is not always 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.


    Be clear

    Tried & tested


    This VAT page is a good example of a design that results from thinking about user needs. Most people will arrive at this page after a search for VAT rates. The answer most people are after is 20%, so we’ve made that the largest, clearest piece of information on the page. You can get the answer you are looking for incredibly quickly. There is more to VAT than just one rate so we’ve included this but clearly designed as secondary information. There’s a slim chance you’ve arrived at the wrong page so we have links to genuinely related items in the box on the top right.

    The page is simple and clear but contains all the different information you might need.

  2. Do less

    Government should only do what only government can do. If someone else is doing it — link to it. If we can provide resources (like APIs) that will help other people build things — do that. 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.


    An example of how we are doing less

    Tried & tested


    Lots of page designs fail because the focus of the page isn’t clear. Don’t try to cram everything on to one page. By trying to do less and deciding what’s the most important thing on the page before you start designing you’ll end up with simpler, clearer designs.

    Remember that government should only do what only government can do, so while it’s right we should provide information about VAT it’s not necessary for us to provide information about keeping bees.

  3. Design with data

    Normally, we’re not starting from scratch — users are already using our services. This means we can learn from real world behaviour. We should do this, but we should make sure we continue this into the build and development process — prototyping and testing with real users on the live web. We should understand the desire paths of how we are designing with data and use them in our designs.

    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.


    A/B testing



    We’re using A/B testing to see how colour changes can affect user behaviour.

    We’ll write more about what we are measuring around user behaviour soon. There are lots of ways to approach this: to give one example Google Analytics is a popular tool that can help assess user data.

  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 — but that’s what we should be doing.

    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.


    An example of where we have done the hard work to make something simple

    Tried & tested

    A screen shot of a smart answer

    You shouldn’t have to understand how government works to be able to interact with it. Government and the services it provides are often complicated, so we should hide complexity where possible.

    Our Smart Answer format is a good example of this. Both Married Couple’s Allowance and Maternity Pay Entitlement are good examples of how we have taken something complicated and made the interaction simple for the user. The code for smart answers is available on GitHub.

  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.

    The best way to build effective services is to start small and iterate wildly. 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.

    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.


    Some examples of how we have been iterating

    Tried & tested

    Once you’re happy with what some code is doing, make sure it is ‘clean’ and easy to read to aid future maintenance by yourself and others. You might also consider using this to reduce complexity and code ‘bloat’. If you’ve built something twice before, pause before doing it a third time and consider whether you can refactor to avoid duplication. For instance, in your CSS, use classes rather than IDs to target commonly styled elements.

    Release and keep improving

    Tried & tested

    A selection of design iterations from GOV.UK

    Release often and release early. A ‘launch’ is not the end of the project, but an opportunity to test the product in the wild, and get feedback quickly. Act on the feedback and continuously improve the product. You can read some examples of this on the blog, day 1 iterations and further iterations the following week made on the GOV.UK beta, and the INSIDE GOVERNMENT first week iteration.

  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.

    We’re designing for the whole country — not just the ones who are used to using the web. In fact, the people who most need our services are often the people who find them hardest to use. If we think about those people at the beginning we should make a better site for everyone.


    Some examples of how we have been building for inclusion

    Tried & tested

    An image showing an example of high contrasting colours

    This table shows an example of using highly contrasting colours, which makes the information easier to read.

    ARIA landmark roles

    Tried & tested

    <header role=”banner”>
    <nav role=”navigation”>
    <footer role=”contentinfo”>

    ARIA landmark roles help people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies understand the purpose of different areas of a page. This video demonstrates how someone using a screen reader benefits from ARIA landmark roles: users/

    Form fields and labels

    Tried & tested

    <label for=”name”>Name:
    <input type=”text” id=”name” placeholder=”For example John Smith”>
    <label for=”yes”>
    <input type=”radio” name=”citizen” id=”yes” value=”yes”>
    <label for=”no”>
    <input type=”radio” name=”citizen” id=”no” value=”no”>

    Form labels help everyone enter the right information. Associating the form label and form field within the HTML means that people using screen readers also have access to the label.

    The position of the label text is important. For checkboxes and radio buttons the label is best positioned to the right of the field. For all other field types the label is best positioned to the left.

    Skip links and hidden content

    Tried & tested

    <!-- In HTML -->
    <a href=”#content” class=”visuallyHidden”>Skip to content </a>
    /* In CSS */
    .visuallyHidden {
      position: absolute;
      left: -999em;

    Skip links lead to a point on the same page instead of another page. They provide a useful shortcut for people who do not use a mouse.

    The best place to include a skip to content link is towards the top of the page. This makes it easy for keyboard only users to reach, and it provides a convenient way of moving keyboard focus directly to the start of the main body of the page.

    Skip links may be hidden from view by default, but should be brought into view when the link is given keyboard focus. This approach makes the skip link available to both sighted and non sighted keyboard only users, whilst keeping the visual experience clean.

    Clear link text

    Tried & tested

    <a href=”guide.html”>Guide to maternity leave</a>

    Links should act like signposts to information. It’s best if they do this concisely and accurately, so that people are given a clear indication of where the link will lead.

    It’s also a good idea to avoid references to the way the link will be activated. People on touch screen devices won’t “Click here” for example, and neither will people unable to use a mouse for accessibility reasons.

  7. Understand context

    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?

    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.


    Examples of how we have been considering context


    A photo showing a selection of devices

    Your service could be accessed from almost anywhere on a wide variety of devices in all sorts of different environments. Consider how the usage might change for each of these. For instance, a low-cost, low-power shared PC in a public library or a smart phone used whilst walking down the street.

    Remember we are designing information, not pushing pixels around a screen.

  8. Build digital services, not websites

    Our service doesn’t begin and end at our 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 some day, 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.


    One example of our content being used outside of our website


    One example of this is the WordPress plugin that Saul Cozens made to “reproduce content from GOV.UK on any Wordpress post or page.”

  9. Be consistent, not uniform

    Wherever possible we should use the same language and the same design patterns — this helps people get familiar with our services. But, when this isn’t possible, we should make sure our underlying approach is consistent. So our users will have a reasonable chance of guessing what they’re supposed to do.

    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.


    Examples of our design work being consistent but not uniform

    Likely to change

    Screenshots of the GOV.UK and INSIDE GOVERNMENT betas

    So far we have released beta versions of GOV.UK and INSIDE GOVERNMENT. Comparing page designs from both of these projects gives you a good visual example of what we mean in this principle. These designs feel like they come from the same family, but they are different depending on the different requirements of the page.

  10. Make things open: it makes things better

    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 we’re giving away all this...



    Tried & tested

    A screen shot of a GOV.UK page, with annotations

    This is an example from the GOV.UK beta that illustrates many of these design principles in action.



    A screenshot of typography examples

    Typography is extremely important in any design. It’s a key factor in legibility. We have more control over web typography than ever before and we should ensure our designs are clear and easy to read.

    Over the next few months we will be testing different typographic designs.

    Currently we’re using Gill Sans for headlines and section headings. We’re using it as ‘web font’, which isn’t without issues so we’re using it sparingly and carefully. It adds character and, spaced properly, feels British and modern.

    We’re using Georgia for body text. That’s text that you would actually read, as opposed to glance at, or as used in highlights or warnings.

    It was also created by a British typographer.

    For pretty much everything else we’re using Helvetica, where people have it installed, or Arial.

    The full list of type styles we’ve used is illustrated here.


    Likely to change

    A screenshot of some small icons

    Here are the icons we’ve used on GOV.UK.



    A photo of some early-stage transaction thinking

    What is a transaction?

    At the end of a transaction some kind of action has been performed (above and beyond the simple exchange of information). Typically this would involve an exchange of goods and money, but government transactions also involve the transfer or creation of legal rights and obligations. Another distinguishing feature of many government transactions is that they often involve more than two parties.

    More detail coming soon


    A photo of some early-stage transaction thinking

    We’re currently working on a broad range of transactions to create a pick’n’mix of consistent design patterns which we can choose from for use in a number of scenarios.

    Some things we’ve banned

    Tried & tested

    A photograph of some examples of banned design metaphors

    We should be simple and clear in all our communications. Visual metaphors which are overused tend to hinder communication rather than help it. For that reason lightbulbs, brains, jigsaws, cheetahs, chameleons and butterflies are all banned.


This is an alpha release of the principles and we would like your feedback. Is there anything you think we should add that would make these principles more helpful? You can email your feedback to