Highways England - welcome to the DMRB
Highways England logo

Highways England's online design manual for roads and bridges construction

We’ve been working closely with Highways England for three years now. Together, we’ve tackled usability challenges, mapped out journeys of the digital and physical kind, and created tailored tone of voice and design guides for its sub-departments. But, most excitingly, we’ve witnessed a true advocacy for user-centred practices grow across the organisation.


For the latest stage of our journey, we worked with the department within Highways England responsible for maintaining the Standards for Highways (SFH). As part of the government’s Roads Investment Strategy (RIS1), Highways England was instructed to update the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges (DMRB).

The DMRB is central to the Standards for Highways (SFH) knowledge hub, and guides the delivery and management of roads across the UK. It details the technical standards for designing, constructing and maintaining British roads and bridges. The DMRB is also followed internationally, and so sets a global precedent.

Highways England landing pages displayed on tablets

Building a new digital home

In early 2020, we were tasked with designing and building the manual’s new digital home. It had a website already, but it hadn’t been updated since the early .com days of 2002. As a result, it was outdated in design and infrastructure, and still mirrored its printed counterpart.

And we had to work quickly. The RIS1 stipulated that the new DMRB needed to improve both efficiencies and usability by 1st April 2020 – giving us just eight weeks to design, build, test and release the site’s new front-end. To amp up the pressure, this was also the first project we delivered during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the obstacles, our objectives were clear. We were guided by a directive from the Government to:

  • simplify the standards, making the information clearer and more freely available
  • ensure the standards were trustworthy and would set a precedent for other countries
  • help create opportunities for UK suppliers
  • facilitate human roles further up the value chain.

The results

Through an effective partnership with a cohort of third-party organisations, we were able to collectively transform not only the content within the manual, but the processes that underpinned its development and maintenance.

Nomensa helped facilitate the delivery of the DMRB as part of the Technical Standards Enterprise System (TSES) roll out. Our ambitious drive to make the 15,000 page manual more concise, succinct and understandable generated:

  • 40% reduction in the number of pages- a feat of around 6,000 less pages
  • 349 documents to 155
  • a 60% drop in departures or deviations from the standards.

And these efforts had a real world impact too:

  • 70% reduction in costs of drafting the documents driven by improved collaborative online working
  • 80% decrease in time taken to draft new documents, reducing the estimated 11 years to complete the standards using traditional methods to just three
  • 7.5m in TSES investment priorly spent updating the DMRB recovered through enhanced processes
  • 10m in costs spent reviewing and processing departures was saved every year thanks to improved rates of compliance.

In 2021, our team scooped up a Highly Commended in the Highways Award for the Best Use of New Technology in the Highways Industry. Proving that even with tight deadlines and a global pandemic, you can still rapidly deliver a cost-effective and user-centric website that’s woven together by excellent UX practice, insights and user interviews.

Smartphones showing Highways England landing pages

So how did we do it?

Ahead of our engagement, multi-supplier teams had worked with Highways England to establish a whole new framework for redeveloping the content. Central to this was two years of hard work by our partners to complete the complex back-end systems. But even with this solid development foundation, we still had tight deadlines and budgets to contend with.

Agile methodologies were our friend here. Distilling our usual UX practices into short but lucrative sprints allowed us to populate our project with collaboration-inducing ceremonies.

We also know that the trick to beating a complex web build is to deconstruct it into manageable, themed pieces of work. We then break them down even further to create a backlog of development tickets. These themes shaped our areas of focus and directly informed our minimum viable product (MVP), and provided a source of truth for our team to work from.

Designing a new, future-proof manual

With our sprints scheduled and MVP defined, we set off on our week-long discovery to understand the current information architecture and usability. We leant on the contacts and expertise within Highways England, and called upon stakeholders and document authors who had rich experience in the DMRB to be our willing test subjects.

As the DMRB also didn’t have a branding repository to draw from, we created wireframed concepts to better understand what branding resonated best with users. These insights formed the basis for our later designs.

We selected a neutral, minimal aesthetic that:

  • balanced user and government needs
  • exceeded the client’s expectations
  • created a strong foundation for future design work.

Development

Alongside conducting user research, we also ran a two-week research and technology discovery. We worked with a third party and relied on their data for the application programming interface (API). Our development team explored potential solutions for DMRB’s tech requirements, and then turned their attention to building an environment ready for our designs.

Our developers ran all DevOps activities, and made use of current technologies like Vue.js/Nuxt to simplify the environment set-ups and release processes within Amazon Web Services (AWS). Our CI/CD process minimised the difference between development and production, resulting in single step and consistently hassle-free deployments.

We then partnered the resulting website with a data studio. This suite of tools came complete with trackable metrics and an analytics dashboard, so the team could continue iterating and improving independently.

Forming a robust foundation for future iterations

By beginning with the fundamentals and incrementally building out functionality, we shared workable code from the start. Coupled with insight-driven designs, we were able to give Highways England a total picture of the project as it progressed. These regular check-in points not only reassured stakeholders through transparency, but captured their expertise, too.

Over the course of our programme of work, we’ve been delighted to see Highways England continue its transformation into an innovative organisation that really champions the user at every step. Where tough timelines and a large design overhaul could have set us back, we instead had enthusiastic and understanding stakeholders who supported this globally relevant project in any way they could.

This was concurred by Steve Davy, Highways England’s Head of Technical Standards, Technical Assurance and Governance Group. When reacting to news of our success at the Highways Awards, he commented: “For me, the sustained collective effort is one of the real stand-out features of all that has been achieved. We hugely appreciate that opportunity.”

Are you facing a similar website redesign?

Whatever your budget or time constraint, we can help you deliver sizeable UX gains for your digital product and your users. Whether you’re building a new product, rebranding or just enhancing, we have almost two decades of experience to guide your organisation into tomorrow, and beyond. Get in touch today, we’d be more than happy to help.

Highways England quote

“For me, the sustained collective effort is one of the real stand-out features of all that has been achieved. We hugely appreciate that opportunity.”
Steve Davy, Highways England’s Head of Technical Standards.

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