The Australian Government Design System is dead, long live GOLD
The Australian Government Design System (AuDS) was released in 2018 by the Digital Transformation Agency. The design system provided a set of reusable components and patterns for building federal government websites. To the surprise of the community the AuDS was recently discontinued in September 2021. This article looks at the options available to government agencies looking to commence a new web project.
The Australian Government System promised to bring consistency to the design and implementation of Australian Government websites. It was well adopted by agencies looking for a straightforward way to implement accessible websites which met web standards and the recommendations of the DTA Design Standards.
Support and development on the project waned around September 2020 with almost no active development being undertaken on it from that time on. The project had therefore been in limbo for sometime. The news that it was to be discontinued was however met by surprise by many in the community. This was widely reported in the Australian tech media. As a project it offered promise and many had invested time and energy supporting, promoting and implementing it.
At Morpht, we had been involved from the early days, having built the GovCMS8 Starter theme which provided a full implementation of the project. We have continued to develop products internally based on the theme, including Convivial for GovCMS which has been the foundation for at least 20 GovCMS builds over the past few years. To the author it was almost inconceivable that such a foundational piece of digital strategy would be abandoned with no guidance provided by the DTA as to what the future alternatives might be. It seems that agencies were on their own to work out what to do next.
Members from the open source community stepped in to continue the project with a fork on Github. The new project was called GOLD, harking back to an earlier name for the project.
AuDS is too valuable to not have an active and empowered Maintainer group. We believe that to secure the future of the Australian Government Design System, it must move to a community-driven open source model, including the configuration of the Maintainer group. Evidence tells us that otherwise tying this to an alternate government department, risks the internal priorities of that department skewing the development of the platform.
What does this mean for government agencies?
Government agencies must now make a decision as to how they would like to proceed. The new GOLD version of the design system is a viable alternative, however, it is now no longer a recommendation, let alone a requirement. The alternative is for agencies to strike out in a new direction and select an alternative framework. This is a decision which needs to be made on balance.
There are many possible alternative frameworks which should address the requirements of government sites. Many of the components in the original UI-Kit (SuDS) were influenced by Bootstrap 3 and by GovUK. It was a framework which had its genesis in work done in other projects. Many, if not most of the components in AuDS have counterparts in other systems.
Of all the web frameworks Bootstrap is by far the most popular. It is currently on version 5 and is regularly maintained and updated. The table below takes a comparative SWOT analysis of the various options.
More support from other frameworks
|Weaknesses||End of life||Only minimally active||More design effort
Potential inconsistency with other sites
|Opportunities||Easy to switch from AuDS||Larger developer pool
A viable option
More design focused sites
AuDS vs GOLD?
The main thing keeping a website on AuDS would be inertia. The cost of switching from AuDS to GOLD is minimal as GOLD is a fork of AuDS and theoretically should not break current implementations. Switching will involve some cost and inconvenience but it would be small. At Morpht we have updated our themes to use the new GOLD library and faced no major problems in making the switch.
Generally speaking, themes implemented with a design system can go for long periods without needing an update to the foundations. They can be incrementally added to an improved and updated overtime without needing an update to the core components. The main thing which forces an update to a theme would be security updates which must be applied. There actually may be advantages in keeping dependencies locked to a version as the chances of including new vulnerabilities is reduced. However care will still need to be taken to monitor vulnerabilities in dependencies.
It is likely that most of the sites which have been developed on AuDS will remain on that platform for their lifetime. Switching to GOLD is probably a sensible decision, however, the advantages would not appear to be immediately compelling. Development in the GOLD project seems fairly sedate at the moment with only minor changes being introduced.
GOLD vs Alternative framework (Bootstrap 5)
Switching to an alternative system, such as Bootstrap 5, is a much bigger decision with potentially a lot of upsides for agencies who chose to go down that path. There are many advantages to choosing something such as Bootstrap 5:
- Well understood by developers
- Less opinionated
- More design freedom
- More support from other frameworks
- Larger developer pool
For agencies considering this option, care needs to be taken around understanding the need for having a stronger design vision which needs to incorporate a wider range of considerations. With AuDS and GOLD the degrees of freedom were much fewer. Bootstrap 5 is pitched at a lower level, with more levers for tweaking the components. A more atomistic approach has been taken. The design effort in implementing a Bootstrap 5 theme will generally be greater.
The threats of moving to something like Bootstrap 5 are inconsistency and cost.
Firstly, with respect to inconsistency, with greater freedom comes greater risk of more variability, which can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. Organisations with a store style guide will be able to navigate these waters better than others. If design standards are not enforced, it is likely that sites under the same organisation will not be consistent or feel coherent.
Secondly, costs will generally be higher with a framework such as Bootstrap. The definition and design stages of a project will require a greater emphasis on component design. Wireframes will not necessarily be able to make easy assumptions about how the components may be implemented.
A middle ground
It is important to make a distinction between the different presentation layers of a website.
The style guide is owned and maintained by the organisation and defines its own principles and rules for how it presents itself to the outside world.
A design system defines a set of components, small and large, which can be composed to form the structure of designs.
The theme brings the two together, applying the style guide to the design system.
At Morpht we regularly work with different design systems, including AuDS, GOLD, Bootstrap 5, NSW DDS and the Health Design System. We have found that each of these systems are based around a number of key components which are remarkably consistent in nature. These include grids, cards, alerts, calls to action, buttons, forms, tables, accordions, lists and colours. There are differences to be sure, however there is a core which can be implemented in very similar ways.
It is helpful to think of a design system as a structure which provides a number of helpful constructs which can be targeted. The design system provides the skeleton on which the site can be built.
The corollary is that the style guide is the driver of how the organisation presents itself: the colours, typography, imagery, textures and overall mood and tone. The key is making sure that the style guide is faithfully implemented with tools being provided to editors giving them the ability to access style guide features within the context of the design system.
In this view of the world, the design system is not the primary driver of the outcome. The style guide, and associated digital design are the key determinants.
Morpht has recently worked on two GovCMS SaaS projects for federal government agencies using different foundational design systems. The first, the Attorney General’s Department, is based on the AuDS. The second, the Airforce Cadets uses Bootstrap 5. Both sites utilise similar components and site building techniques. The design outcomes are very different. The Airforce Cadets required its own flavour and the less opinionated Bootstrap 5 was a better choice due to the design freedom that it offered.
Freedom of choice
The words of Devo came to mind when writing this article:
In ancient Rome
There was a poem
About a dog
Who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead
Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want
The DTA flirted with limiting the freedom of choice. A single, mandated gov.au platform would have limited government agencies to a single platform and a mandated design. Freedom from choice would have made the path clearer and more consistent. However, the decision was made in 2016 to open the way to government agencies to go their own way in deciding how to implement their sites. The use of the AuDS was never mandated. The recent move from the DTA to drop the AuDS further opens the freedom of choice available to agencies. This is devolution.