Innovation from standardisation

Photo by Katy LoveMy colleague Nic Price pointed me to a page on the BBC GEL site, which talks about the value of standardisation and consistency. GEL is the BBC’s “global experience language” and described as “the BBC’s shared design framework which enables us to create consistent and delightful user experiences across all of our Digital Services.”

The page is justifying GEL as a standard, saying “the right amount of consistency speeds up innovation”. That’s fair, but if we were to borrow that argument for another context it’s worth understanding why.

The national grid is also used by Simon Wardley to explain how evolution of products and services stimulate innovation. But the emphasis from Simon is not that electricity has a standard, it’s that the standard turned it into a commodity. Once electricity became a commodity people could create things like electric kettles and electric irons knowing they could be sold and used throughout the land. The key is commoditisation.

The creators of GEL want their designers to innovate by not spending time on low-level matters such as icons, widgets, animation options, etc. They want their designers to take those as solved problems, and instead spend their time innovating at higher levels.

If BBC’s GEL works it’s not because someone imposed a standard—it’s because it’s created a commodity. Then people can exploit, say, an icon library, pick appropriate patterns for user journeys, and so on. But, since the BBC’s designers have freedom to ignore the standards, it only works if they can see that GEL benefits them. If not, then they have a choice: accept that there is additional work with no added value, or work around it, creating exceptions. The end result in either scenario is waste and poor outcomes.

Standardisation isn’t bad or good in its own right. We need to make sure it serves real needs.

Photo by Katy Love