While the benefits of using the design system become more clear to agency teams as they use it, they often start with some concerns and misconceptions about how it works and the value it provides.

Leverage the benefits of USWDS

Building a website or adding to an existing one can be a significant undertaking. While there’s an initial investment, agencies save time and energy in the end, allowing them to focus on their mission instead.

In addition, when agency teams commit to using the design system, they don’t have to worry about explaining every design decision to stakeholders, allowing teams to align on priorities and move forward quickly and confidently. Some teams are also looking for support and documentation to help them advocate with their leadership to use design system components and principles.

This has already been developed and blessed by an interagency community so you don’t have to just go on my opinion. — Manager
By using these standard components, our design is less likely to be hijacked by some external stakeholder who has some new idea. We can say ‘oh we’re using the web design system.’ While it gives us flexibility, it also gives us protection to do something testable and usable. Less likely for our designs to go off the rails. — Designer

Adhere to their brand

Some agency teams fear that adopting the design system means their website will look like every other government website. Many agencies have pride in their brand and want their digital services to be recognizably their own. However, these efforts may not have the impact they’re hoping for, as most members of the public value easy-to-use experiences over beautifully branded ones.

The design system team needs to do more to show agency teams that they can still customize the look and feel of their sites using the design system, while keeping the accessibility and UX best practices it provides. This involves balancing just the right amount of guidance without being overly prescriptive.

The largest roadblock is that there is a very strong current of agencies wanting to have their own identity. — Manager
Very few people would be ok with a site that looks like other government sites. They all want their brand, a way to look different. — Content manager

Learn how designers fit into the process

Another common misunderstanding is that USWDS is only for teams without a designer. Though the design system supports design and engineering processes, it’s not a replacement for a designer or any of the other cross-functional skills necessary to bring it all together. Instead, using the design system allows designers and engineers to focus more on problem-solving for specific user needs (such as adding multilingual content) and less time establishing the basics.

My general opinion is that it’s a great set of principles and tools for agencies that don’t have designers. I’ve always had excellent designers and UX experts on staff so we didn’t need the design system, per se. — Civic tech leader
I have a UX person on my team so I’m very lucky. — Manager

Know what compliance means

We also heard significant confusion around the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, otherwise known as 21st Century IDEA. Though the Act was signed into law over two years ago, agency teams are still trying to figure out what compliance looks like. It’s unclear if using USWDS is required for all sites, or only new or redesigned ones.

There are also questions of customization: can components or colors be customized, or do they have to be the default styles? Though the Act mentions eight specific standards for websites, including that they be accessible, mobile-friendly, and user-centered, agencies are having trouble determining what “good enough” looks like 1.

So where it says ‘the standards as issued by TTS’, is that USWDS? And no one knew. ‘Standards’ has budgetary and workload prioritization meaning. — Civic tech leader
We weren’t sure if it was a requirement by law or optional tool. — Designer

Conversation starters

We should explore a few different avenues to help agencies understand the value of using USWDS and support them in gaining executive buy-in.

  • How might we communicate the value of the design system more effectively to new customers?

  • How might we help agency champions advocate for the design system?

  • How might we clarify common misperceptions or confusion around the design system?

  • How might we better explain what 21st Century IDEA means for agencies and help them understand how they are performing?


  1. 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act. (2020, August 31). Retrieved January 06, 2021, from https://digital.gov/resources/21st-century-integrated-digital-experience-act/