Product design and development are high-stakes processes for companies of all sizes and descriptions today. It's only natural that stakeholders have turned to powerful standardized tools to streamline their workflows and get better results.
Design systems are among these important innovations. These are comprehensive sets of guidelines, standards and principles, paired with tool kits of UI patterns, code snippets and components to scalably guide digital product creation. With a design system in place, designers and developers can keep their work consistent over time and maintain a high level of quality.
In recent years, design system use has become an industry standard. Organizations dealing with numerous complex product development projects can lean on these frameworks to achieve impressive results — but not every organization is equally skilled at using design systems.
With an infusion of best practices, a company can ensure it's getting the most out of its design system usage, rather than just checking boxes. The wisdom of this approach will show in the quality of the products the organization releases.
In its ideal form, a design system is a framework that ensures a product — and every component within that product — is kept to high standards of consistency and quality. Rather than relying on guesswork, designers and developers can look to the frequently updated library and ensure their work matches what has come before.
When teams throughout the company are all following the same set of plans and standards, they're able to create products that live up to their potential.
Having a design system to work from encourages communication, collaboration and alignment between personnel groups that might otherwise feel trapped within departmental silos.
Just as important as the positive effects of successful design system usage is the relative lack of impact when these tools aren't implemented well. In organizations that haven't optimized their adoption strategies, designers may not be able to understand the guidelines, or they could feel they don't have to update them regularly.
Design systems that are incomplete or aren't kept up to date, or employees not knowing how to follow them correctly, can neutralize the potential benefits or leave teams more confused than they were before. Acknowledging that design system success isn't automatic is the first step to getting it right.
To deliver an optimized design system experience, it's important to determine who will use them. In one capacity or another, numerous stakeholders, teams and functional groups all touch design systems.
Some users will simply consult design systems to keep their own work on track. Others will play a more direct role in implementing them into the design and development workflows, or they'll make updates to ensure up-to-date accuracy.
Parties involved in design system use include:
Ideally, design systems will keep all these employee groups on the same page. Every contributor who works on a product can consult the design system regularly, with managers pitching in to make sure everyone has the knowledge they need to use the system effectively.
These employees have very different day-to-day responsibilities and play diverse roles in the process of creating a high-quality product. A design system, as a single source of truth, brings them all together.
The road to effective design system implementation isn't always smooth. A few common repeated themes tend to come up across organizations and industries — when they do, they prevent businesses from seeing optimal value.
These problems and issues include:
Some of the most frequent issues mainly strike smaller organizations that don't have the time or other resources to smoothly change their workflows. Others are more tied to management styles or a lack of employee education.
For businesses of any kind, making the necessary changes to address those challenges and adopt design systems is essential, allowing design and development teams to take a truly modern and collaborative approach to product creation. As a result, dedicating the resources in the short term can come with powerful long-term advantages.
Truly making design systems part of an organization's product development workflows is a process that plays out over time. While there are some initial steps companies can and should take immediately, others will reveal themselves in the months and years to come.
The first priority is to add best practices to the mix. Then, it's time to ensure the value stays strong over time. A good foundation is essential, but employees at all levels must ensure the system they design is future-proof.
These are immediate actions and priorities to make sure a design system implementation provides value:
These are the practices organizations must embrace over time to keep design system programs strong.
With a steady approach, better design system usage is within reach for companies, no matter where they are on the maturity curve.
When designers and developers work with experts on their product workflows, this is a perfect chance to absorb best practices — including the effective use of design systems. The competencies can last for the long term, even if the engagement is limited in scope.
Collaboration between the third-party experts and internal teams is essential to success in these cases. The consultants will engage in fact-finding to discover the state of the company's current design system usage, then suggest improvements to help the business chase its unique objectives.