Skip to Content
Policy

Inside the US government’s brilliantly boring websites

You may not notice it, but your experience on any US government website is a carefully crafted experience.

June 26, 2024
USWDS

The United States has an official web design system and a custom typeface. This public design system aims to make government websites not only good-looking but accessible and functional for all.

Before the internet, Americans may have interacted with the federal government by stepping into grand buildings adorned with impressive stone columns and gleaming marble floors. Today, the neoclassical architecture of those physical spaces has been (at least partially) replaced by the digital architecture of website design—HTML code, tables, forms, and buttons. 

While people visiting a government website to apply for student loans, research veterans’ benefits, or enroll in Medicare might not notice these digital elements, they play a crucial role. If a website is buggy or doesn’t work on a phone, taxpayers may not be able to access the services they have paid for—which can create a negative impression of the government itself.  

There are about 26,000 federal websites in the US. Early on, each site had its own designs, fonts, and log-in systems, creating frustration for the public and wasting government resources. The troubled launch of Healthcare.gov in 2013 highlighted the need for a better way to build government digital services. In 2014, President Obama created two new teams to help improve government tech.

Within the General Services Administration (GSA), a new team called 18F (named for its office at 1800 F Street in Washington, DC) was created to “collaborate with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve public service through technology.” The team was built to move at the speed of tech startups rather than lumbering bureaucratic agencies. 

The US Digital Service (USDS) was set up “to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design.” In 2015, the two teams collaborated to build the US Web Design System (USWDS), a style guide and collection of user interface components and design patterns intended to ensure accessibility and a consistent user experience across government websites. “Inconsistency is felt, even if not always precisely articulated in usability research findings,” Dan Williams, the USWDS program lead, said in an email. 

Today, the system defines 47 user interface components such as buttons, alerts, search boxes, and forms, each with design examples, sample code, and guidelines such as “Be polite” and “Don’t overdo it.” Now in its third iteration, it is used in 160 government websites. “As of September 2023, 94 agencies use USWDS code, and it powers about 1.1 billion page views on federal websites,” says Williams.

To ensure clear and consistent typography, the free and open-source typeface Public Sans was created for the US government in 2019. “It started as a design experiment,” says Williams, who designed the typeface. “We were interested in trying to establish an open-source solution space for a typeface, just like we had for the other design elements in the design system.”

The teams behind Public Sans and the USWDS embrace transparency and collaboration with government agencies and the public.

And to ensure that the hard-learned lessons aren’t forgotten, the projects embrace continuous improvement. One of the design principles behind Public Sans offers key guidance in this area: “Strive to be better, not necessarily perfect.”

Jon Keegan writes Beautiful Public Data, a newsletter that curates visually interesting data sets collected by local, state, and federal government agencies
(beautifulpublicdata.com).

Keep Reading

Most Popular

What is AI?

Everyone thinks they know but no one can agree. And that’s a problem.

What are AI agents? 

The next big thing is AI tools that can do more complex tasks. Here’s how they will work.

What’s next for bird flu vaccines

If we want our vaccine production process to be more robust and faster, we’ll have to stop relying on chicken eggs.

How to fix a Windows PC affected by the global outage

There is a known workaround for the blue screen CrowdStrike error that many Windows computers are currently experiencing. Here’s how to do it.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.