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Defining digital standards for the NHS

By Olivia Sharp, 17 April 2018

Standards team sketching in their design sprint


Since NHS.UK’s digital transformation began, lots of progress has been made, for example in tackling topics like medicines,  building communities of practice, defining an identity and style and improving services at a local and national level.

When they’re designing, building and improving services, teams have been following GDS’ Digital Service Standard and their excellent Service Manual, along with some of our own style guides and shared learnings from transformation.

But we don’t have our own mature standard yet of how we do things. With the particular needs of healthcare users and NHS having a strong, trusted brand, we’re noticing more and more that we need to go beyond the GDS standard and define our own universal method.

It could help not just NHS Digital, but the thousands of bodies making digital services across the NHS. Could we take some of their hard work away by giving them foundations to work from? Can we help improve user journeys across local and central NHS services by bringing in consistency and a standard for user experience?

So where have we got to in answering these big questions?

A brief discovery

As a team, we agreed that understanding both the needs of groups in NHS Digital and the wider NHS was a huge task.

So we started with the users closest to us: product teams at NHS Digital.

We interviewed product and delivery people, developers, user researchers and designers of different shades to understand what was missing in terms of standards. Here’s some of what we learned:

  • standards should help people to make better decisions and save them time
  • there’s a strong need for design essentials, like a shared grid, fonts and colours, and reusable patterns
  • while teams know they need to work to the GDS standards, the standards don’t always suit health-related products and teams would like more guidance around how their work is assessed
  • user research and new design patterns get shared in an ad-hoc way and that’s a missed opportunity
  • while more mature standards would be appreciated, teams enjoy the freedom to be creative and work in ways that suit them rather than having a strict model imposed

A design sprint

To get ourselves moving quickly into making decisions and testing out solutions, we held a design sprint – a contained week of consolidating knowledge, generating ideas, prototyping and testing with users.

(Design sprints are brilliant. If you want to know more, read about the NHS 111 team’s sprint, and learn from the concept originators – Google Ventures)

Defining our goal

Early in the sprint we agreed on our goal for the overall project:

“Help teams efficiently produce high-qualityconsistent NHS services that meet people’s needs”.

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’ll help us remember that as well as supporting those making services, what we do must benefit end users of NHS services.

Zooming in on the problems

Through mapping the current picture of standards and ways of working at NHS Digital we were able to see the biggest, most impactful painpoints, and hypothesise ways of addressing them.

We agreed on the hypotheses we wanted to address first:

  • a design system with useful, up-to-date patterns for interaction designers, front-end developers and content designers
  • an assessment process and set of criteria for healthcare services to meet
  • a manual for ‘how we do things here’ that draws on the GDS manual but defines areas of difference

From idea to prototype

The team took part in sketching activities to get as many ideas as possible on the table. We combined the most feasible sketches to make a rough storyboard for our ‘new product’ and our designers mocked this up into a working prototype.

Winning sketches

From sketch, to storyboard, to prototype

Storyboard of a pattern page

From sketch, to storyboard, to prototype

Prototype of a pattern page

From sketch, to storyboard, to prototype


Early feedback

On the last day of the design sprint we took our prototype out to users in NHS Digital to test if we were going in the right direction.

Some of the findings:

  • yes, a design system would be very useful (and give it to us right now!)
  • how we approach product assessment needs more work
  • people definitely want to contribute and feel ownership over a set of standards, rather than being ‘fed from above’

What’s next?

  • we’re planning to get something out there very soon for teams at NHS Digital to start using and evolving
  • we’ll continue to explore what an assessment process would look like for NHS digital services, including how it fits with the GDS model
  • we haven’t scratched the surface of supporting the wider NHS, so we’re doing further discovery

We’ll also be blogging more and would love to hear from you if this project’s of interest, particularly if you work for the NHS and think digital standards could help you.

So please send us your details or get in touch with one of the standards team over twitter:

Ian Roddis: product manager

Dean Vipond: visual design lead

Anthony Fairweather: Torchbox partner

Olivia Sharp: content designer

Dominic Hamilton: delivery manager

Mark Branigan: user researcher

Eric Lamarca: interaction designer

Last edited: 30 September 2019 2:30 pm