The Do’s and Don’ts of Creating a Design System: Key insights from our panel discussion.

Jack Reinelt, President of the Americas
11 November 2020

When built and governed correctly, Design Systems provide many benefits, like increasing team efficiencies and creating time and cost savings for an organization. However, the process of building and implementing a Design System can be challenging; if not done right, it can result in a lack of participation, and ultimately, the benefits derived from a Design System are lost. For a Design System to be a success, many aspects have to be interconnected and steps carefully planned and executed: starting with discovering the underlying user issues and the “why” behind the need for the Design System; to securing the buy-in from management and everything in between. So, what are the key areas to focus on when building your Design System?

In October, we started our focus on the Design Systems topic by hosting the first session of this webinar series ‘Introduction to Design Systems’, which tackled the foundational elements and the benefits to teams and organizations. The third webinar session of the series will be taking place on December 9th, ‘Proving the value of a Design System to management’, and it will dive into building your Design Systems’ business case and getting buy-in from stakeholders.

In this blog, we’ll discuss our 2nd session of the series, which took place last Thursday. The dynamic panel discussion revolved around the challenges, mistakes, lessons learned, and the ongoing maintenance of a Design System. Below we share with you the key insights.

First, meet our panelists:

Panel webinar #2

Our panel of Product and Design experts from Somo and Audi was led by our very own Kelley Brown, who hosted the session and questioned the panel on their learnings from being involved with creating and maintaining Design Systems. Kelley kicked off the session by revisiting what a Design System is and asked the panel:

Where do you start when creating a Design System?

Ben shared that research is crucial, and it should be the first step in building a Design System; research can consist of two parts: 

  • Firstly, external research: read and educate yourself and your team members on what Design Systems are, the learnings and lessons from other brands that have created Design Systems, and generally digest the reams of information that exist on this topic on forums like Medium.

  • Secondly, internal research: conduct your own investigation with users, learn their problems, and understand what it is that you are trying to solve. 

Inez added her thoughts about the necessity of uncovering as much information as possible during the first stage of research. To build the right foundation for the Design System and ensure that the design team members are all on the same page, you have to discuss many details like agreeing on the tools and the language that will be used throughout the process and answering questions like: How will the system be shared, and what’s the communication plan?

How does a Design System intertwine with brand guidelines? 

Inez shared that brand guidelines are created with design principles at their core; both visual and interaction goals need to reflect the brand’s identity. Branding elements and components are always interacting with each other because the Design System is a living thing and will continue to evolve and be governed by the brand guidelines.

 Tyler shared with us his brand perspective on this question: 

Expression in the digital space of a brand is vitally important. Design Systems are meant to enable that digital expression and not limit the creativity of a solution, but provide acknowledgment and representation of the brand to the end-user in a consistent fashion

Once the Design System is built, what’s the most important thing to focus on?

You must adopt the understanding that the Design System you are building is a living entity and it’s at the core of what other systems are built on. Elements all around the Design System will stay in motion, technology, brand, and digital landscapes will continue to evolve, and your Design System needs to evolve with it. The key is to have the flexibility to make the necessary changes but ensure that you are staying true to the core of the Design System and why it was created.

Understanding the purpose of what you are creating the Design System for and staying true to that. If it doesn't evolve and meet the core needs and add value - it will die. - Tyler

Tyler adds that distribution, testing, and measurement are also very important elements in maintaining the Design System:

  • Ensuring accessibility and knowledge sharing between all the teams is vital to adoption.

  • Sharing feedback, especially from the brand’s side, is important to get consistent feedback and answer the question: How successful was the implementation from the end-user’s perspective, and did we fulfill our goal?

  • Tracking and measuring success metrics like adoption and efficiency in creating and delivering designs and components, and finally the team’s overall satisfaction.

“You have to be cognizant of the intent of what you are creating, and measure the value over time and know that it’s a commitment” – Tyler

Ben emphasized Tyler’s point, and added that governance and proving the value to management are also crucial areas to focus on after the Design System is created:

  • With knowledge sharing, comes the need for governance - centralized, decentralized, or a blended approach. Once other team members are involved, they will start to contribute to the  Design System, and that requires appropriate governance around it.

It’s important to have these laws in place to govern adoption, contribution, and maintenance, otherwise you’ll build a product that nobody will actually use - Ben

  • Tracking success metrics are critical to the ongoing success; I recommend reading an article called 'stop building Design Systems without a tracker'. It talks about the importance of tracking success metrics, which is the topic of our upcoming 3rd webinar. Showing a tangible output from a customer’s benefit standpoint is hard with a Design System; although it creates consistencies and a better experience for the end-user, it's hard to directly relate that to business value and profit. You really must track metrics like efficiency, accessibility, and adoption; those metrics will give you that business case to take up to your management for continued investment.

How do you balance consistency with innovation?

Inez discussed that complexity in a Design System could generate frustration and restrict the innovation of the Design team. The components added to the Design System need to be simple enough and help the team stay productive.

 'You want consistency, but not complexity. We should strive to make the process more effective, not restrictive.'

How important is it for the Design System to be perfect?

Ben explained that when building any digital product, there is no such thing as being perfect; there is always room for improvement, especially when requirements from users are always changing. A Design System is essentially the foundation of your brand from a digital perspective, so it needs to be held at really high standards, like ensuring it has robust documentation and compliance with flexibility standards. 

 You’ll never get perfect but make sure you define what standards you expect from your team, and contributing teams, around things like guidelines and accessibility

Tyler built on Ben’s point, saying: 

Because a Design System is at the core and used by everybody else, the investment and quality at the core magnifies as usage comes out. You want to make sure that you are building quality in at the base not at the edges because that creates a fragile system

Can you speak to a mistake you’ve made when creating a Design System? And what would you do differently?

“Mistakes happen, it’s natural. You’re not going to build the right product the first time around, even if you conduct a lot of research”- Ben

Ben continued to share his biggest mistake, which was not separating the Design System team in the initial creation stage from a feature team focused on a business deliverable. He says by attempting to achieve two things in parallel to each other, it took away from the focus on some aspects of the Design System, like the documentation was not as robust as it should have been; we did not create the best accessibility standards for our team. Moving forward from that experience, Ben ensures that his team focuses entirely on the creation stage at first, which allows them to do it right from the start.

Inez added that the Design System should stay simple. She’s worked with Design systems that had too many elements, and it created complexities and in turn, generated a lot of problems because of how often the elements needed to be updated and even in some instances scrapped altogether from the Design System.

Tyler shared his perspective that it’s important to know when you need a Design System. Sometimes we get caught in the roadmaps of each product but it’s important to take a step back and re-ask vital questions like: How does it benefit my brand? What purpose does it fulfill? When do I need to start this? Being thoughtful and cognitive of your overall goal will help you make the right decision and not fall into the mistake of creating a system that may not be very useful. 

How do you ensure the ongoing success of a Design System?

Tyler believes that ongoing success for a Design system is directly related to:

  1. Getting the buy-in from all the stakeholders

  2. Communicating a clear mandate of the Design System’s purpose within the organization. 

The more a Design System is placed at the core with a clear and collective understanding of its purpose, the more successful it will be overtime

The Design System is an enabler and the structure on which everything is built. Because of that, there needs to be a high emphasis placed on the marketing efforts for adoption; the Product and Design teams are the ones that will need to believe in it and want it to succeed.

Our 60 minutes were over, and our speakers had debated 20+ different facets of Design Systems and shared with the audience the challenges they faced, and the success measures they developed through real-life examples. The message was clear; to build a successful Design System, many elements will come into play, starting with research to uncover the “why”, establishing your teams’ common ground, collaborating consistently, ensuring the teams' adoption and desire for the system to succeed, and proving the business value to secure the buy-in. It is imperative for an organization and the teams within to comprehend the goal of a Design System and keep that in clear sight as they navigate through challenges, ever changing paradigms, and new user requirements. 

We’ve learned so much but the conversation is far from over, join us for our 3rd and final session of this webinar series on December 9th, where we’ll discuss a very complex and critical subject within Design Systems, which is securing the buy-in from your stakeholders. 

Sign up here for our next session, 'Proving the value of a Design System to management' on December 9th at 10:00 (EST) | 3:00 pm (BST). Our speakers will discuss how to build a cost-benefit analysis for a Design System and share the different types of business values a Design System can result in, including increased revenue and cost reductions. We’ll also discuss how to build and present a strong business case to management that helps support your argument. 

Webinar #3

Watch the ‘Do’s and Don’ts of Creating a Design System’ webinar recording.

If you’re interested in learning more about the topics discussed above or to find out about our upcoming events, or contact us here.