Using design systems for digital success within the federal space

Federal agencies can face unique challenges when creating website experiences for users. Each agency has its own focus, but a common goal is to provide efficient, consistent, user-friendly digital experiences for the diverse communities who depend on their services.

By using a standardized design system like the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS), agencies can help alleviate struggles for those who develop and maintain their site and provide a positive experience for those who visit it. Developed specifically for the federal government using human-centered practices, USWDS has accessibility, compliance guidelines, and a mobile-friendly design built in from the start.

Ad Hoc has extensive experience developing and maintaining design systems for large, complex federal websites. They are an important tool for agencies looking to scale their digital transformation and improve services to the public. In our work on design systems, we’ve seen a couple of persistent problems they can help solve and gathered lessons to help teams implement design systems effectively.

Persistent problems that design systems can help address

Contract onboarding

Many government contracts are structured to be rebid after a specified amount of time. Because of this, whole parts of an agency’s website can change ownership. This can create a high level of staff turnover, and the process of government employees helping to onboard new contractors in the transition can be time-consuming.

But a solid design system can provide many benefits during this period. It can give a new team everything they need to become established quickly: a shared library containing common language, consistent visuals, and style guidelines. Essentially, it serves as a playbook to help all involved parties be on the same page. There is no guesswork involved in understanding what a button should look like or how a particular page pattern should work. As a result, teams can shift their focus to the problems they need to solve to improve the user’s experience.

Communication silos

To design an agency website that is manageable and consistent on the backend and user-friendly on the frontend, communication is one of the most critical components for success. When federal websites are divided into multiple contracts and teams work independently from one another, communication silos occur. A critical design decision one team makes could negatively affect another team’s work. If decisions aren’t shared among all involved, teams run the risk of creating a cumbersome website plagued with redundancies, meaning more corrective work for everyone.

A design system can remove communication barriers by serving as a common guide to standardize all the website components teams build. Contracting teams can also communicate their design decisions through the system to ensure what one team implements doesn’t conflict with others’ decisions. Communication stemming from the design system builds a collaborative, trusting culture and a transparent environment for team interaction.

Federal website compliance

Additionally, federal websites have specific requirements that private sector websites aren’t held to. They must meet accessibility requirements, be mobile-friendly, and have higher standards for data privacy. Without a standardized system, making sure each team adheres to these requirements can be time-consuming and inconsistent. For example, building with accessibility in mind can be challenging without hands-on testing and dedicated time to make sure the overall experience is positive.

A design system can help alleviate the pressure for individual teams to be compliant. By using a standard set of components within the design system, teams will spend less time creating from scratch and will use those same tools across the site. Design systems can take the guesswork out of compliance and help teams create a website that anyone can use on any device while maintaining their data privacy.

Things to consider when building a design system

As we’ve previously written, it’s possible to develop a design system at the beginning of a project or once it’s already created. But either way, building one can be demanding and time-intensive. Here are a few things to think about as you begin the process that can help increase system adoption among teams and can produce successful results.

Remember it takes a village

The saying, “If you build it, they will come,” doesn’t always ring true with design systems. Thinking that you can build a design system and other teams will automatically see its value is not a realistic mindset to begin with.

Instead, think of design systems with an “it takes a village” approach. Design systems are most successful when everyone is part of the process – this creates buy-in. Involving all teams may be a slower approach, but it will create a solid, trusting foundation to ensure design system success throughout the life of the project.

Develop design system champions

A design system champion is someone who advocates for its value. Garnering excitement around this approach creates the momentum you need to get stakeholders and other contract teams to adopt it. You might begin your journey as a lone wolf, but the goal is to unify teams in this work. Having a champion by your side who can tout the benefits of using a more effective method can increase the likelihood of others following suit.

Creating design system champions may not happen overnight. Because adopting a design system can mean significant changes in how teams work, it can take time for people to embrace the process. But having those champions who are enthusiastic about the opportunity for more efficient processes can help those who may be more resistant to change.

Get stakeholder approval

This is probably the most critical step and the most challenging, especially for federal websites. Without stakeholder approval, a design system can be dead in the water. Contracting teams all have key requirements and tight deadlines that they must meet to complete their work. When you pitch a design system to stakeholders, you will be asking teams to dedicate time to learning and adopting a new way of doing things, which can affect their predetermined contract requirements.

Teams don’t have the time to contribute to the design system unless they’re given dedicated time to do so. Making sure stakeholders understand the long-term benefits of investing time and effort in a design system will significantly increase the likelihood of success.

Create a tiger team

Because silos are challenging to overcome, one initiative that can help is to create a design system tiger team. This small working group consists of key stakeholders and a designer from each contract who understand and agree upon the expectations and time commitment when joining. They collaborate regularly on tasks like aligning components, documentation, and processes. They also share thoughts and ideas on efficiently aligning different components and patterns. An added benefit of creating a tiger team is that it can result in design system champions who advocate for the benefits of a design system to others.

Define your processes

It’s tempting to want to focus on building the design system first, but it’s essential to establish processes up front that keep the design system and all its components current and applicable. Approval and contribution processes within federal agencies can be complicated and slow. Many people are usually involved, and they all need to be on the same page. Consider how the processes below will play out to ensure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities and to minimize potential delays or team conflicts.

Approval processes

Federal websites usually must receive approval at multiple levels. For example, when there are discrepancies between components or design patterns, who gets the final say? It’s important to determine who will be the final approver as you’re auditing components, and this approval process might be different for design and development.

Contribution processes

There are three main areas of contribution within a design system: design, development, and documentation. Creating contribution processes for each area will ensure that your design system stays relevant and up-to-date.

Contribution is a big area, and, as with approvals, responsibilities must be clearly defined. For example, what happens when a component bug is discovered or documentation for a specific component has changed? Who makes the update? Who writes the tickets? How does this fit into the team’s current objectives? Ensuring product owners are involved, responsibilities are clear, and teams have the time they need to do additional work is essential to the system’s success.

Begin with buttons

You might be overwhelmed by where to start with a system design, especially if teams and stakeholders already have established processes. Most advice tells you to audit all components of your entire website, but this isn’t necessary. Instead, we recommend beginning with buttons to establish successful processes. Focusing on buttons from design to development will help simplify these processes and keep everyone focused on the end result. Once there is a single source of truth for buttons, you can move on to another component. Think of buttons as your minimum viable product (MVP) for your design system.

Another advantage of focusing on buttons is tying metrics and deadlines to a single goal. You can easily divide this goal into chunks of work that are easier to communicate to stakeholders and product owners. For example, you could say, “By the end of this quarter, we will have completed an audit of buttons and finalized the button design that teams will use.” It’s an easier goal to focus on than starting with an audit of the entire website.

A design system is a powerful tool – and we can help

If you believe your federal website would benefit from a design system, remember that defining the processes early and establishing team involvement are most important to your design system’s success. Starting small can set you up for quicker approvals and can help with design system adoption by creating incremental, achievable goals. It takes a collaborative, trusting village to create a successful design system, so be sure to focus on building that village.

Ad Hoc has extensive experience in developing design systems with agencies like the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. If you are interested in using our knowledge to help you along the process of creating your design system, reach out at