Our design principles

Before designing a site you need a decision making framework. These are often called design principles. Here are the design principles we are using at St Andrews. Do you agree with them?

Designing and building a website involves thousands of decisions. Decisions between often competing requirements. A constant stream of tiny compromises.

To ensure we make the right decisions we need a decision making framework. These are often called design principles. It is an approach used by many organisations including both the US and UK governments.

Here are the design principles we are currently working with. We have tried to be honest about how these principles might impact you. If you have questions, concerns or suggestions we would love to hear them. Just post them in the comments below.

Like the UK Government Digital Service we have a set of design principles we work within.

Like the UK Government Digital Service we have a set of design principles we work within.

Start with user needs

Every digital project we undertake as an institution must start with the users need. The digital products and services we offer have to fulfil a user need. We cannot just build them because of internal processes or organisational directives.

We must base these needs on solid research and not assumptions. We must also remember that what users ask for is not always the same as what they need.

We base our entire working process on these needs. Only once we understand the users needs can we start designing an appropriate solution.

Why you might find this painful

A scenario we encounter a lot is somebody in the institution coming to us with an idea. An idea for a website, mobile app or social media channel. Unfortunately these are solutions to a problem that hasn’t been properly defined. We need to understand the user problem you are trying to solve first.

This means we will want to sit down with you and discuss user needs. We will then work with you to find the right solution. This takes a little longer but leads to better products and ensures money is not spent on the wrong thing.

Standardise our approach

To prevent a fragmented user experience and wasted money we believe in standardising our approach. One where the user has a single interface to learn and where a standard platform is in place.

The University of St Andrews is a decentralised organisation and we are not trying to change that. But the ability for individual schools or business silos to do their own thing cannot be at the expense of the user experience. It also cannot cost the University unnecessarily.

We believe that a more standardised approach needs to exist across the digital products and services we offer. Standardisation of user interface, but also underlying technology.

Different parts of the University waste a lot of money recreating the same digital solution and that needs to stop.

Standardisation doesnt mean cookie cutter websites. Just look at the range of designs at the BBC.

Standardisation doesn’t mean cookie cutter websites. Just look at the range of designs at the BBC.

But this shouldn’t lead to cookie cutter design. We take inspiration from the BBC. They have a common design language that still allows variation across their various brands. What is more they build on a common platform allowing them to make significant cost savings.

Why you might find this painful

There will be times when we have to set constraints on digital projects in the University. Constraints in what it looks like and how we go about building it.

There may be times when this will slow down the development of your project because it needs to integrate with the bigger picture. We advise contacting us early and that means addressing the digital elements of your project from the start. Don’t let digital be an afterthought.

Simplify what we offer online

Just because something can go online does not mean it should. The University needs to reduce its digital presence and focus on quality over quantity.

The University of St Andrews online presence has grown to the point where it is unmanageable. The cost of maintaining what we have is expensive. Improvements are almost impossible with so much content online. Even worse, the sheer quantity of content is making it hard for users to find the information they want.

The European Commission recently reduced their number of web pages by 80%. Following their example we are seeking to simplify what we have online.

Like the European Commission we are looking to significantly reduce our online presence.

Like the European Commission we are looking to significantly reduce our online presence.

Why you might find this painful

There is no way to sugar coat this. To keep the site streamlined and simple we may remove some content you might consider important. We may even say no to you when you suggest new content.

For every piece of content on our website we need to answer some tough questions. Questions such as:

  • What is the user need?
  • Is this user need important enough to justify the impact on other use cases?
  • What level of traffic can we expect for this content?
  • Is this an edge case better dealt with in other ways?
  • Who is going to be responsible for maintaining this content and do they have the time to do so?
  • What is the financial cost of creating and maintaining this content?

Sometimes this will lead us to concluded that your content should not be online. But that is a conversation we can have together and reach a compromise everybody is happy with.

Design for everybody

The University has legal obligations to make our content accessible online. But we should not stop there. We should build digital tools that are inclusive, legible and readable to all.

Accessibility is not just about the disabled. It is about a student using a mobile phone on a slow connection. It is about an international prospective student who doesn’t speak english as a first language. It is about a member of the general public who doesn’t have their reading glasses to hand when they access the website.

Accessibility is about more than the disabled. It includes all users including those on mobile devices.

Accessibility is about more than the disabled. It includes all users including those on mobile devices.

We all face access problems from time to time and the University of St Andrews should cater to these needs. Our designs should be inclusive no matter the device, connection speed, or impairment.

Why you might find this painful

If you are writing copy for the website that contains acronyms or jargon you can expect us to challenge you. We will also challenge you if your writing has a high reading level. Remember the university is trying to attract more international students. Their reading level may not be as high as you think.

Not that it is just about writing. You may find us discussing the need for a site to be responsive or a mobile app to work across many platforms. But always remember, any suggestions we make will not just benefit the disabled, it will benefit all users.

Design with data

Digital allows us access to a wealth of data about user behaviour. We will make decisions using data, not opinion or assumptions.

In digital we don’t have to guess. We don’t have to wonder if we are taking the right approach. We can test, look at analytics and track user behaviour. We can prototype an idea and see how it performs before committing to the full build. We can iterate and improve based on the results we receive.

Why you might find this painful

This way of working takes some adjustment. In digital there is no need to write long specification documents or hold endless meetings to define the project. Instead you can build something and test its capabilities.

You will find us keen to start work even when we don’t know exactly what we are building. When there is disagreement about the best approach we will turn to testing. It will not be about the most senior person in the room making the decision. These might be different ways of working, but they show results and that is what matters.

What do you think?

So there you go. Those are our design principles. These help us make decisions on a daily basis. We are conscious that some of them may grate. Not so much when you read them here. But they may grate when we come to work together. That is why we wanted to discuss them upfront. To explain why we have taken this approach and to give you a chance to challenge them. So what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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