New federal website design standards emphasize ‘continuous improvement’

The U.S. Web Design System maturity model looks to give federal sites a familiar look and feel, and allow users to navigate seamlessly on their mobile devices.

A month after agencies submitted website modernization strategies to Congress under the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), the General Services Administration has updated its set of templates agencies must adhere to when launching new federal websites.

The U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) maturity model, an update to the first web design standards GSA’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) launched in 2015, looks to give new sites a familiar look and feel that users can navigate seamlessly on their mobile devices, but still gives agencies some creative leeway.

Dan Williams, the U.S. Web Design System Product Lead, told reporters Wednesday agencies must follow these rules for website design much like the rules of baseball.

“No two games are exactly the same, but they’re all recognizably baseball,” Williams said during a conference call. “Similarly, sites that use the design system aren’t cookie-cutter clones, but they can adapt to the needs of their mission and to user needs that are specific to the agency or project.”

Meanwhile, the maturity model promotes a greater continuity of experience across the federal government mandated under the 21st-Century IDEA that President Donald Trump signed in December 2018.

TTS Director Anil Cheriyan said that more than 40 agencies over the past four years have used GSA’s open-source web design system to build their more modern sites. He added that the agency’s update websites standards focus on “continuous improvement” of websites, rather than “one-off or all-or-nothing redesigns.”

The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has relied on these web standards to launch, a mobile-friendly disaster preparedness resource. The Department of Health and Human Services has also used these resources in building and an overhaul of the website for its Centers for Disease Control.

Ammie Farraj Feijoo, GSA’s implementation lead for the 21st-Century IDEA, said federal websites received 14 billion sessions last year and more than 38 billion page views.

“Our customers’ expectations are being ratcheted up by the private sector and government services should be delivered in ways the public now demands and expects — quickly, easily securely and accessible,” Farraj Feijoo said.

The legislation requires agency websites to “be in compliance with the website standards” of TTS, but Innovation Portfolio Director Jacob Parcell said GSA hasn’t set deadlines for agencies to comply.

“We’re not in the role of compliance or tracking compliance, but we do have some tools that could track some aspects” of the web modernization mandated in the law, Parcell said.

GSA runs dashboards that track metrics such as the mobile-friendliness and security of agency websites, but Parcell said agencies the focus of the maturity model is for agencies to make continual improvements to their sites.

“The clear message from this research is that delivering great digital experience is continuous and iterative,” he said, not “flipping a switch on and off.”

Under the legislation, all new public-facing websites and digital services must meet these eight requirements:

  1. Accessible — Be accessible to individuals with disabilities in accordance with Section 508
  2. Consistent — Have a consistent appearance
  3. Authoritative — Not overlap with or duplicate existing websites
  4. Searchable — Contain a search function
  5. Secure — Be provided through a secure connection
  6. User-centered — Be designed around user needs with data-driven analysis
  7. Customizable — Provide an option for a more customized digital experience
  8. Mobile-friendly — Be functional and usable on mobile devices.

Agencies had until Dec. 20 to submit a report to Congress that lists their most-viewed public-facing websites, as well as a list of the sites that require modernization. Agencies must submit these reports annually until 2023.

The law also required agencies to draft a plan to broaden the use of electronic signatures by June 20, 2019.

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