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Guidance on Style Guides: Lessons Learned

by Chauncey E. Wilson, Director, Design and Usability Testing Center, Bentley College
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 7, No. 4, April 2001

This article highlights some of the lessons that I’ve learned about the process of creating style guides and implementing processes for ensuring that a product is consistent in a number of dimensions. I discuss the purposes and benefits of a style guide, a process for creating a style guide, the many types of consistency, reasons why style guides fail, methods for ensuring consistency, and some references that discuss these issues in more detail.

What is a Style Guide?

A user interface style guide can serve as:

The creation of a style guide can serve as a focal activity for an integrated design team involving documentation, development, usability, graphic design, marketing, and other groups. The first step in style guide development is to select stakeholders who can contribute in substantive and political ways. Several members of the style guide team should have some exceptional political clout or be highly respected for their technical expertise. These powerful stakeholders can serve as evangelists for the style guide and the process for ensuring consistency.

The second purpose of a style guide is to describe the guidelines and standards for software or hardware products and (sometimes) the methods for ensuring consistency across products.

A style guide can be a training tool for new members of the design team. Since a style guide provides the basic templates, controls, and rules of design for a suite of products, a wise development manager would require every new developer to read the entire document before touching a line of user interface code.

Consistency is Not a Simple Concept!

The goal of all style guides is to enforce consistency across a set of products. Part of the early design of a style guide should be a discussion of the term "consistency." Consistency is a complex concept.

The following is a list of the different types of consistency that should be considered:

You can also define consistency as the number of if-then rules required to explain a part of a GUI or Web interface. Take the example of Microsoft Paint. The object tool bar works pretty consistently–if you click on an item, then you can draw. The toolbar in Microsoft Word has many more rules.

The following are some of the Word rules for interaction with the tool bar:

The object toolbar in Paint is more consistent because it requires one rule versus many rules in Word. Try this if-then exercise on a small part of a web site or GUI application and you will get a sense of how consistent the product will be to the user.

Benefits of a Style Guide

Gale (1996) provides a list of benefits from different perspectives. This list can be useful for justifying the time and money spent on a style guide. Gale’s main benefits are listed below:

End Users Developers Business Team
Reduced errors Maintain control over look and feel Produce usable systems that reduce support costs and increase user satisfaction
Less frustration Minimize re-invention Increase market awareness
Increased morale Capitalize on learning Increase product awareness
Improved efficiency Enable production of reusable software Reduce training costs
Increased confidence Reduce development time Improve staff retention
Reduced resistance to new technology Reduce arbitrary design decisions Increase user acceptance of new systems

Support for a Style Guide

The design and implementation of a user interface style guide requires bottom-up support from developers and mid-level managers who have responsibility for implementing the style recommendations. To get bottom-up support, it is important to have top-down support from senior management. A good way to ensure that you get bottom-up support is to:

How to Create a Style Guide

The basic steps for creating and implementing a style guide are below. The keys to success are a good requirements process, a dedicated team of stakeholders, and iterative design and testing as the style guide evolves. Human Factors International publishes a good pamphlet that covers the style guide process well. You can view an online version at

The following is my version of a process for creating a style guide.

  1. Find someone who has developed a style guide and is aware of the pitfalls.
  2. Work with a small group to define the requirements for your style guide. Do you want it online? Will it contain method standards? Will there be a way to do updates so that everyone will be notified? Does the style guide explain how exceptions will be dealt with?
  3. Put together a group of 8-12 people who will be committed to the style guide and can dedicate a major portion of their time. Make sure that a few people on the committee have the clout to make style guide adherence a corporate priority.
  4. Define a structured process for the development of the style guide.
  5. Start with high-level architectural guidelines and standards that will have the most impact (templates for Web pages or major features like search). Have small groups with the relevant expertise write draft sections and have the entire group review them and provide feedback.
  6. After defining the high-level pages or screens, work on lower level issues and general issues like color, use of controls, and text guidelines. Base these more detailed issues on the high-level components so the design is internally consistent.
  7. Continually review the sections with the committee and when they are ready, publish them to a larger audience for additional review and comment. Conduct some usability edits on key sections of the document to ensure that it is usable.
  8. Decide what processes will be implemented to publicize, distribute, update, and enforce the guidelines and standards in the style guide.
  9. Publish the style guide and make it clear who will maintain the document.
  10. Conduct style guide training with managers, developers, QA testers, and other key groups.
  11. Convince the product team to implement consistency inspections and make consistency part of everyone’s objectives, bonuses, and job descriptions!

Reasons Why Style Guides Fail Tips on How to Avoid Failure

Style guides can fail for a number of reasons. The following are some of the more common reasons for failure:

How to Improve Consistency Beyond Style Guides

As a consultant, I wrote several style guides. One of the ways to get consistency into everyone's mind is to have product teams take a short "Style Guide" consistency course with a number of short exercises on noticing and correcting inconsistencies. Even if you don't use a particular style guide, it might be worth having a lunchtime seminar where you do some "Can you find the inconsistencies?" exercises.

Group consistency inspections are a good way to reveal consistency problems and gaps in the style guide. They are also an excellent way to stimulate cross-group consistency in areas that the style guide covers as well as areas that are not covered by the style guide. Consistency inspections generally require a catalog of screen shots that can be marked up and if possible, a working prototype that allows a review of interaction consistency.

Error messages can create many problems from simple irritation to loss of data to support calls. If you are starting a new project, consider a general-purpose error-handling tool. It is useful to have a general-purpose error-handling tool that lists all the messages. These messages could be reviewed for readability, consistency, and usability and changed by someone (a writer, editor, or usability or tech support person) other than the developer. The ability to print out all error messages easily can be a real asset for usability, consistency, and accuracy reviews.

Printing out Web pages or GUI components and laying them out in a rough workflow in a public area (not where customers will see, but where internal folks would see) and asking people to write comments on the screen is effective. You can roll these items up and carry them around to meetings (I call them "GUI Rolls"). If you have a large color plotter somewhere that can do very large rolls, that is the best way. You can layout sequences of screens with Visio for example.

You can also do a formal consistency inspection on the GUI rolls that gets into detailed interaction and flow consistency in addition to look and feel issues.

To raise awareness about style guide issues at one company, we enlarged sections of our style guide to poster size and put them up in a number of conference rooms for several months. After a few weeks, people would sometimes point to the posters when they were reviewing a specification and say—hey, this product doesn't follow that guideline on the wall.

Nielsen’s edited book, Coordinating User Interfaces for Consistency (Nielsen, 1989) is dated but still the only general reference on the issue of consistency. There are many good ideas beyond style guides for obtaining consistency across a product set.


A user interface style guide is a foundation for design but doesn’t guarantee the success of a design. A style guide is only one link in the chain of user-centered design activities that are important for product success. Requirement analysis, user profiles, task analysis, testing, and iterative design must accompany a style guide. Don’t let your development team believe that all usability problems are solved once there is a style guide!



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Last updated 27 January 2004