When we started designing a pattern library for the U.S. government — what’s now become the “U.S. Web Design Standards” — we thought organizing the site itself would be easy. Designing anything would be so much easier if we could design for ourselves, instead of having to deal with clients and users, right?
We were really wrong.
Once we started listening to designers and developers, we quickly learned that our assumptions–and even some common practices in popular pattern libraries and frameworks–didn’t align with actual user needs nearly as much as we’d hoped. We never knew that categories like “component”, “element,” and “patterns” were elegant, but didn’t work of our designers. We learned that developers and designers want more than just instructions for implementing each component. And a big lesson for us was that developers don’t just implement components; they play with them first. We’ll candidly discuss the wrong turns we took, the lessons we learned about building usable pattern libraries, and how we’re planning on proceeding.
Through it all, we learned a repeated lesson: Even though we were designing a library for ourselves (and people like us), we couldn’t assume we knew what worked well. Research helped us help ourselves, and it can help you, too.
Colin MacArthur is a user experience researcher and designer at 18F working from Boston, MA. He started professional life as a park ranger and went on to design apps, websites and other things (including the odd exhibit) for the National Park Service. He went on to be the “UX team of one” for a digital art book publishing start-up in the Bay Area while getting his masters degree in information management and systems from UC Berkeley’s School of Information.