Design systems for the social sector

Kathryn Dingle

Image of architecture design plans

The Challenge

At the moment, digital service design (and service design more generally) in the charity sector is fragmented and wasteful. User research and design work is carried out in silos within separate organisations, and for each new project we tend to start from scratch on re-inventing the wheel. This doesn’t just cost us money, but it also places an undue burden on the communities we work with to contribute to research processes. So what if there was an easily searchable library of research along with tried and tested design patterns to shortcut some of that effort?

The Opportunity

Over in the private sector things like these are already being developed and they’re called design systems. But of course, they’re individual to companies and a lot of the most interesting information isn’t made publicly available as having a better online interaction can be a source of competitive advantage for a company. We don’t have this same issue in the social sector though. Because we’re driven by mission not money, we can collaborate to deliver the best possible services rather than jealously guard knowledge to ensure our rivals don’t do better than us.

There’s already some good work being done along these lines in specific thematic areas (for example or Hackney LA’s User Research Library) but there’s no open, shared, collaborative repository for everything. This is of course a missed opportunity for sharing knowledge and reducing the need to repeat basic user research, but there’s also a greater opportunity to start building on user research findings in the same way academic research builds on past results. This would allow for more rigorous testing, validation of results and a deeper understanding of how people engage with services.

It’s also an opportunity for offering people a more consistent and usable service experience. For example both Refuge and Women’s Aid have a button to quickly exit/hide their website, which could be really important to people who are at risk of abuse. But it’s not in the same place on both sites and those few seconds of remembering which site you’re on and finding the button could be critical to someone at home. Similar functionality could also applicable across a range of different online resources for vulnerable people, but it hasn’t been implemented at all yet.

What might this be?

  • An open platform for contributing:
    • Design patterns for interactions and workflows
    • Reusable, documented components
    • Design principles and heuristics
    • Testing data / evaluations of patterns, components and principles
    • Functional and technical documentation
  • A descriptive data standard for the above elements in the platform
  • Mechanisms for incentivising contribution to the platform
  • Discovery and search for the platform

Comments 4

  1. Here’s the GDS one:

    They have patterns here: and UI components here:

    They’re calling it a ‘design system’. Their process for contributing is quite centrally controlled in that the central design team reviews proposed contributions and has to agree they are worth doing (and we probably wouldn’t want to do that). But we should think about process.

    Here are some ideas we could consider adopting from it:

    Having a community backlog (ie. wishlist for things that don’t exist)

    Having some sort of ‘is this validated by research’ status

    Downloadable HTML / nunjucks

    Integrated with github

  2. Post
    1. Thanks for the examples! If there’s any particular features in them you think might be valuable for a social sector library then please do highlight (and we could add as candidates to the feature backlog)

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