Designing solutions to join up health tech NHS England and Improvement

Research suggested a new digital service could support the interoperability agenda in health. We explored how it could be done.

The challenge

In April 2021 we were engaged by NHSX to carry out a 4 week discovery into the barriers to interoperability (joining up IT systems so they can exchange data) in health and social care.

The benefits of interoperability are considerable. Care professionals will be able to instantly access patient records (with permission), making care faster and safer.

The discovery identified 50 user groups and over 60 unmet user needs for interoperability to be achieved.

The highest priority needs include:

  • being able to easily find the technical and data standards needed to exchange data between systems - currently this information is held by multiple sources
  • being able to find clear information on what interoperability is and how to achieve it
  • being able to contact developers working on interoperability and share APIs and code with the community

Ideas exploration

We used the alpha phase to explore solutions to our highest priority user needs.

We kicked off with a session with the NHSX team to rapidly surface a range of ideas. We then combined elements of everyone’s ideas to create two strong concepts to explore further.

Ideation sketches
Outputs from an ideation session with NHSX
Prototype flow diagram
Refined flow of the strongest design concept

Following testing and refinement we turned our frontrunner into a working prototype that we could test with real users.

We used the NHS Design System and Style Guide and GOV.UK Design System to create a consistent visual and written style.

When grouping the standards by topic - for example standards for ‘allergy services’ or ‘mental health services’ - we used [organisation’s] groupings to try to align to users’ existing mental models.

Browsing standards
A screen of the 'browse' approach to navigation in the prototype
A view of a standard
An example of a standard entry, outlining key metadata and cross-linking to other related standards and usecases

Validating with users

We carried out 17 prototype testing sessions and iterated the prototype 3 times following feedback.

Overall the feedback was positive and validated that this service is worth developing in a beta phase.


“It’s a positive piece of work. I look forward to seeing the output”. Tech Lead, NHSX

“I'm working with a startup currently and I've got them in mind when looking at this… to give them an idea of what they need to do otherwise they need to go looking through everything”. Solution Architect, Supplier

“Generally it looks pretty clear. If you had stuff plugged in now it would be useful… but the final judgement will be in its implementation”. Information Manager, NHS Trust, England

“The basic idea is an excellent one. Overall it’s a very positive reaction... Consider a broader range of standards: didn’t see anything about user interface standards”. IT Healthcare Consultant

“We’re trying to set global standards. This site can help signpost people to things and there’s a high level of trust because it’s NHS-endorsed. We would point to this to say, ‘look the NHS uses [our standards].” CEO, standards owner organisation

Next steps

The prototype has been made available in a public GitHub so users across health and social care can continue to give feedback.

We’ve also recommended a suitable open source technical solution to build the service and created a set of clear next steps for NHSX to continue this work

More on this project

Researching barriers to interoperability in health

Building the NHS Data Standards Directory

Get in touch

Whether you’re ready to start your project now or you just want to talk things through, we’d love to hear from you.

+44 (0)20 3886 0115
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