The University Design System: a journey that has just started

One of the key strategic projects our team has been working is the creation of a University Design System. What is it, why is it important and what have we been working on?

The challenge with the University digital presence

Because of its devolved nature, the digital experience across the University’s web estate is very fragmented, with a range of design approaches and outputs. Several pieces of research conducted by our teams and by external agencies have validated that our audiences rarely engage with a single website or application to interact with the University. There is a recognised risk in proceeding without a coordinated digital design approach, supported centrally by a range of processes, guidance, and tools. These will need to evolve to reflect the ongoing business requirements and user expectations.

As a typical example, a prospective student will have to navigate between the central University Website, pages in a school website, our degree finder and accommodation services, at a minimum, before making a choice. Due to devolved ownership, these critical elements of the experience do not always align, making our student experience unnecessarily challenging. Now, widen this onto the thousands of University-owned websites and tens, if not hundreds, of web applications used daily by our staff and students.

Does this mean that everything needs to look the same? No.

Does this mean that the components of our digital estate need to work in harmony for the benefit of the users? Yes.

The longer-term, strategic aim of our efforts is to support a coherent and coordinated digital experience for all University audiences. One of the areas we have been focusing to help us achieve this goal is the development of a University-wide Design System.

Our Design System approach

While doing our homework, researching other organisations and their design systems, we came very quickly to the conclusion that there are several different ways to approach the development and delivery of a such system. Even the term design system can have many interpretations and can lead to interesting, but lengthy, discussions.

Our design system view is quite holistic. It must contain all necessary components to deliver the best experience possible. In no particular order:

  • All necessary guidelines, policies, standards.
  • Libraries, codebases and toolkits.
  • User-centred processes to iteratively research, validate and improve the above.

Content, visual design and code all play their own critical part and our focus needs to span across all of these areas.

This approach is summarised in the following statement:

The aim for the Digital Design System Service would be to offer, review and improve iteratively, all necessary resources and support for University business units to deliver a world-class digital experience for all its audiences while achieving their business objectives.

Putting the right blocks in place

Learning from previous experiences, we have been working closely with other areas of the University to develop and deliver a system that can be not only relevant and usable by its users, but sustainable and expandable. To achieve this, we have shifted the focus from delivering design system content and components to put the building blocks of a future service in place. By doing this, we are making sure that we will not only bring together the system’s components but have all the right tools to evolve them, always ensuring that we’re addressing our users’ needs in the best way possible. These main areas of work are:

  • Identify service ownership, roles, responsibilities and stakeholder relationships, and formalise them in a sharable matrix.
  • Identify the design system users and core use cases.
  • Define an end-to-end process to enable the evolution of the design system aligned with our standards and principles. This process will be designed to allow contributions from across the University.
  • Define the requirements and decide on the right platform and technology stack to support the delivery of the design system.

After completing this phase, the focus will shift back to populate the design system with all of the relevant content, visual and code components.

To enable iterative improvements to continue after the formal project has ended, we have put together a cross-functional team. This team consists of experienced colleagues in user research, content and visual design, development, and agile project management. The aim is to hand over to a product-based model, evolving the design system following a backlog of agreed priorities. All University communities will have an opportunity to inform this, ensuring that the design system addresses the right things in the right way.

The University Editorial Style Guide

One of the initial outputs has been the publication of the Editorial Style Guide. This guide offers all best practice information to support the creation of accessible content, in adherence with University guidelines. A valuable reference for all colleagues and students who value quality and accessible content. Work is underway to develop and incorporate the Edinburgh Inclusive Language Guide.

The publication of this guide has resulted, for the first time, in a unified approach across print and digital publishing. Thinking of the Design System in a context wider than digital, this is a major success, indicating the long-term potential of unifying the experience across digital and non-digital elements.

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