18F and USDS Want to Eliminate Federal Website 'Snowflakes'

A new step-by-step guide aims to help agencies revamp their website so the public can get a consistent experience across all government platforms.

The U.S. Digital Service and 18F are on a mission to standardize the digital face of the federal government, all the way down to its typeface.

On Monday, the two agencies announced the release of the U.S. Web Design Standards, a step-by-step guide to help each agency revamp its website so the public can get a consistent experience across all government platforms.

Today, switching between federal websites often means switching between very different layouts and designs, according to an 18F blog post. Its authors even went so far as to compare federal website buttons to snowflakes, as no two are the same.

Led by USDS designer Mollie Ruskin, the 18F and USDS team separated the guide into two sections. The visual style guide is made up of recommendations for everything from color schemes and font, while the common user interface components and patterns side provides code and interface elements.

Although the standards are meant to give agencies “plug-and-play design and code,” the creators did emphasize the need for agencies to conduct their own usability tests.

The standards provide guidance on everything from the maximum size of a search bar, to the appropriate time to use buttons (only for the “most important actions you want users to take on your site”).

For example, “Alerts” are meant to notify users of system information, errors or confirmations, according to the standards. Don’t use them too often, or else you may overwhelm the user. And make sure to be polite.

Although certain agencies, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have created similar design patterns and user interface guides, many other agencies don’t have the resources to follow suit without help.

The team of designers and developers spent four months working on this project.

“With every iteration of this product, we conducted numerous interviews, usability tests and card sorts with designers and developers across government,” the post stated.

But the guide is not meant to be the final product. The agencies have invited the public to provide their input via GitHub.