Higher education websites are notoriously complex, particularly those representing major universities. With audiences that range from high school students to octogenarian alumni around the world, the digital footprint of a university is never as simple as a single website managed by a single team. It can encompass literally hundreds of websites with different audiences, styles, platforms, and owners. A design system, which takes a comprehensive and systematic approach to reusable components and practices across multiple sites, is an ideal solution. Sparkbox recently had the opportunity to work with the Office of Online Learning at the University of Georgia on a design system that we expect to be adopted throughout the university community.
Nancy Byron is the former Marketing and Communications Senior Manager at the Office of Online Learning—she has since moved into a new role at Georgia State University. We spoke with Nancy about how she went about building support for the design system internally.
Sparkbox: Nancy, can you share a little bit about the genesis of this project?
NB: The Office of Online Learning has very close coordination between the marketing and instructional design teams. I initially talked about the concept with James Castle and Amy Ingalls, who focus on instructional design and accessibility. James was the one who introduced me to the idea of design systems. He knew we were thinking about a website redesign and suggested I consider this first. I was just smart enough to listen to him! We knew we never wanted to do a straight redesign ever again. We wanted to allow for constant iterative changes based on user experience and needs rather than just turning over the site in one fell swoop every couple of years.
We had already started thinking about the continuity of a student’s experience from prospect to program to graduation. We knew that a design system would allow us to think about all of those different components and conversations in a cohesive way. A design is going to give us a base that we can pull from for consistency and efficiency. That was immediately apparent for our office, and we knew it would be dramatically more beneficial for the larger university.
UGA has recently addressed brand consistency across the university. There are nice, robust brand guidelines in place now. The next logical step is to apply brand consistency at the website level, right? It makes sense to create one system that can apply to many different units across campus.
Sparkbox: Does a design system project make sense for any internal school or department?
NB: For my team, I don’t know that we would have gone this route if we had not had multiple use cases within our own office. If we had only the main prospective student website and nothing else, a design system may not have been worth it. But because it was going to impact and benefit students and instructional designers, having a design system base made sense. When you add to that the potential benefit for the university as a whole, it definitely made sense.
Sparkbox: What were some of the steps you took to get this project rolling internally?
NB: Major projects have to go through procurement, of course. Procurement is charged with being efficient and looking for opportunities to keep costs low. The design system will promote efficiency, of course. But beyond just the system, there’s the potential for vendors and processes that can be accessed across the university. Claire (from procurement) had seen the dollars being spent on new designs for websites—starting from scratch over and over again, all over the place. She saw that if we could reduce the cost even a fraction of the whole, it would mean huge savings for the institution.
Sparkbox: And everyone likes that! Once procurement was on board, how did you talk about the design system with individual departments?
NB: It’s important to find out what people’s individual pain points are. Everybody is facing something different, and that’s usually a thing that people are willing to talk about. Then ask yourself very honestly if a design system can help with those pain points. How will centralizing the design approach benefit them? How much control of the brand will they have to give up? In order to get behind the approach, people need to understand exactly how centralizing the design is going to benefit them.
Sparkbox: Do you feel like it is necessary to have evangelists who will help spread the word?
NB: That’s a good way to put it. I do think it helps to understand who the key players are within the community, and it’s good to have examples you can share with them.
For our project, we very intentionally pulled together a team of people across UGA. So if there were any concerns from centrally-located offices or services, we would pull that team into the fold at the very start. We wanted to give other internal teams the opportunity to tap into what we were doing with the design system for their own use. We were even open to others taking over the project if they wanted to. We weren’t worried about ownership, we just wanted it to be done right! In the end, we knew this would make our lives better and easier.
With this design system, our office is piloting it, and UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences is going to be using it as well. We’re excited to be able to show how we implement it as opposed to how Franklin implements it. We’ll be implementing it as a smaller unit that has outsourced this process; Franklin will be implementing it as UGA’s largest school with many, many sites and internal teams. It’s nice that we’re going to have both of those examples to show other internal schools and departments because everyone will fall within this spectrum somewhere! They’ll be able to understand how the design system could work for them. We think that there are plenty of people across the university interested in this project who will latch on and give it a try!
Sparkbox: What should folks know if they’re just starting out?
NB: Well, the fact that I had a budget set aside to spend on my website made this an easier sell. If somebody already is planning on doing a redesign of their site and they’ve got a budget set aside for that, they can easily build a basic design system with that money instead. Now, it delays the redesign to a degree but not by much! And the cost of actually implementing the design system is significantly less. They then have a design system that they can then build off of for the future.
Sparkbox: Of course, with a design system, you’re never really done. What comes next?
NB: We knew that one of our challenges is that we don’t have a big team. We’re still working out who is going to own and make updates and maintain the design system and who will implement changes as they’re needed. But we knew from the start that we were going to have to outsource that. Having a strong starting point in the design system has given us the ability to outsource more quickly and efficiently. We worked with Sparkbox recently to implement the design system on the faculty portal site. It’s a simple site, but it was fast (just about two weeks) in part because the system was already built in. The toolkit exists. We’ve also started to see other colleges within the university start to explore the design system, which is good for the whole. We’re happy to be able to say, “It’s here. Who wants to use it?”
Sparkbox and UGA have continued to work together to evolve the design system. If you are interested in working with our team, just reach out.