The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) is a unique, world-leading organisation, specialising in marine geospatial data that ensures safe navigation of the world’s oceans. Through this work, it has established a centre of expertise that helps people and organisations navigate and understand the seas.

Its work is primarily geared around the production of paper and digital charts for mariners, used on 90% of the world’s ocean fleet, and providing hydrographic and marine geospatial data to mariners and maritime organisations across the world.

The Challenge

The UKHO provides a range of products, services, and data sets that help people make critical decisions – this includes mariners navigating the sea and shore-based users of hydrographic data.

In order to achieve this, the UKHO recognised the need to build a user-centred design practice some time ago, to ensure its services provided an experience to match the reputation of the organisation. The practice has steadily grown in its maturity, but as processes and project scoping have changed, there became a need for growth in the area of user-centred approaches.

The key challenges were to:

  • Better understand diverse user groups and their needs in order to create useful products.
  • Deliver a consistent experience across products and services.
  • Create a unified approach to the software development lifecycle.

The UKHO approached SPARCK in 2019 to support the user research, design practice, and further augmentation of the design system for the organisation, to deliver the next generation of user-centred products. The mission was to provide a seamless experience to users and businesses wishing to access this data.

The Solution

Applying design thinking principles, SPARCK designers embedded themselves with the UKHO to work closely with the user experience team. The first major project involved the team working with key stakeholders, to design, test and iterate the design system.

The project began with understanding the organisational goals, key challenges, and product development roadmap. The teams (UKHO and SPARCK) then worked in close collaboration to develop a fully-branded design system aligned to Government Digital Service Standards and ‘Atomic Design’ principles.

The design system was used to prototype a number of new products including a UK-tide times website, digital sailing directions for mariners, a tidal prediction service, and a data upload portal.

Putting design into action

The teams then ran a hackathon with the UKHO software development teams to test the usability of the design system for developers, and to generate ideas for where it could be applied.

The hackathon highlighted the need to evolve the code base from HTML / CSS and Javascript to an Angular framework for the next iteration. BJSS and SPARK have subsequently assisted the UKHO in developing their Design System for both Angular and Web Components, iterating, testing, and enhancing the system throughout.

The design system is now being used to inform the design of new products and internal tools, by both UKHO teams and by external suppliers.

Part of the challenge has been to help mature the UX capability in the wider UKHO. SPARCK teams have helped develop this through impactful design thinking, progressive software development, and user research. Increased use of phased delivery, with SPARCK leading in Discovery, Alpha, and Beta phases across a range of products, has had a significant impact. An increased consideration of service design and content design through SPARCK’s work has also been an addition to the successful UCD practice at the UKHO.

As the marine sector changes at a rapid pace, this team will be critical in helping deliver even wider data solutions to unlock a deeper understanding of the world’s oceans. The UX team will ensure these solutions meet the needs of the users and deliver a world-leading experience.

“Working alongside SPARCK to build a UX design practice, to further the UKHO’s engagement with users, was strongly enhanced by their excellent work with the design system and in communicating and engaging wider stakeholders in design thinking and placing the user at the heart of our products.”

Dave Alexander, Lead UX Designer, The UKHO

The Results

The design system is now being applied to all new product development, ensuring services are centred on the needs of users and deliver a consistent experience. This has already resulted in positive feedback from users of the UKHO services!

Our partnership with the UKHO has continued, and, we have enhanced the development of the design system, furthered skills in user research, and impactful design thinking approaches to prototyping and testing to continue the maturity of user-centred design at the organisation. As it continues to support safe navigation and develop the next generation of ‘blue economy’ products, helping the UKHO, its partners and the wider economy unlock the immense value of oceanic data, creating sustainable value and ground-breaking innovation.