Design Systems can be a game-changer for businesses, but there can be challenges in implementing them. Read how two experts tackle this complex undertaking in this Q&A with Object Edge's Kelly Rader and InVision's Rebecca Kerr.
Q: What do designers need to think about first and foremost when they address this problem?
A: One of the most important things to do before starting on a design system is to sit down and get to know your product manager or product owner (we tend to use those terms interchangeably). You need to have a trusting relationship for this process to be successful, and that involves sitting down together, engaging in active listening, and paying attention to things that are challenges or requirements. This is an opportunity to establish yourself as a service provider to them, make your objectives clear, and focus on how you can help them.
When you’re a product owner, you’re trying to release as much value as possible, as quickly as possible. Anything that stands in the way of that is an obstacle, and so sometimes that’s where product owners lose interest in design systems.
There are some things you can provide to encourage their support. For example, let them know that you’ll be providing all the design artifacts for the stories that require it. You can also assist with VQA, or Visual QA. QA teams are often very busy, and they likely don’t have the time - or sometimes the eye - to perform quality assurance on color palettes, typeface, spacing, etc.
Often, lean teams are writing a lot of the copy, too. They may not have the luxury of a marketer or copywriter. So anything you can do to help product managers put the copy together is beneficial to them and also to your end product.
Finally, explain to the product manager that you’re ultimately in service to the development team, and you want to put together design assets that alleviate challenges for them. Focus on the benefits: design systems lower the total cost of ownership. They save time spent recreating or tweaking elements. Design systems yield efficiency of processes.
Once the relationship is established, it’s a good time to ask them if they can do a few simple things for you to ensure that the process goes smoothly:
Provide you with their roadmap or backlog
Flag any requirements they know will need a UI design
If there’s a scrum process you’re following, request to be invited to the backlog refinement meetings.
Q: What are you looking for in that roadmap and in those meetings? What are you trying to find and what do you do with that information?
A: With that information, you can create your work schedule. If you know when a story is due, or when it’s going to go into a backlog refinement meeting, you can start to build out a schedule.
You might not have to work across the organization as much, but I would try to find a counterpart in your front-end development team, merchandising, or content; someone who owns getting the content onto the site. Try to work hand-in-hand with those counterparts so that you’re not going solo in building the design system.
Essentially, you’re trying to identify what needs to be prioritized within the design system. There are a lot of factors that come into play.
I do this via something I call, “forecasting,” where I see if there are patterns or stories that are about the same topic. Most likely, you’re going to use the same components in those designs.
If you see the big picture, you know how to design for multiple stories. So you will create a component knowing that you’ll be applying it across multiple similar stories. If you don’t look at the big picture, you might design something for one story, and then the next story you need to create think, “Oh! I could have designed the first one to work for both!” It’s important to have the big picture in mind in order to identify opportunities for efficiency and reuse.
Depending on what you forecast, you might even be able to do something called “packaging,” which is where you identify similar stories that could be released in the same schedule, saving the product manager's time, and making you a collaborative partner to them.
While it can often be hard, especially on a lean team, to get ahead, the forecasting and packaging techniques can help.
It’s also critical to ensure that components meet accessibility and compliance requirements. This gives product managers confidence.
Once elements’ usability is confirmed, you can identify ways to reuse them, saving time and effort, speeding up the process, and making things easier for product owners. You actually reduce points in their stories, lowering total cost of ownership and total cost of design.
Q: You mentioned that you use an accelerator Design System. Can you talk a bit about that?
A: At Object Edge, we actually have an accelerator DS that’s proprietary. We use InVision as our monument site to house all our elements.
We basically licensed this DS and can build on it or make modifications. So you can have the foundations and the components laid out for developers. This helps them visualize, as well as copy the code directly.
You can add accessibility information or whatever documentation you need.
The best thing about a design system is that you get to a single source of truth for your organization. Rather than trying to maintain four or five style guides, or juggling multiple documents, this makes design handoffs much simpler and more effective.
Q: Do you recommend showing the Design System to product managers? Does it help them to see what it looks like?
A: It can help them to understand the reuse concept. But really, what product managers are going to like is when they hear from developers, designers, and content writers. Design systems shorten a lot of the questions product managers get from their teams, because the reality is that when their teams have usage guide questions, they don’t go to designers, they go to their product manager. A DS takes some of the workload off of product managers.
Q: What other tips do you have for people?
A: Some of the questions people ask a lot include, “What if my product owner just isn’t on board? What can I do?”
Again, get to know them, understand their needs, but also go the steps of them to be really be successful in delivering what they’ve promised in their releases. Do the forecasting and the packaging. And if none of that works, assemble your own DS to show an example, or Google public design systems and show what can be done with one. Look for a design system in the same industry.
The product managers will recognize that a DS is used by the most successful brands in the world. This can cause them to pause and consider.
And if you’re still struggling to get your product manager on board, partner with your front-end development team. If you can partner, and have an advocate in them, it will help.
About the Author
CUA and VP of Digital Experience
Digital pioneer with 20+ years of experience bringing innovative digital products and services to market successfully for many industries and within a variety of challenging environments ranging from start-up to Fortune 100 companies. Effective in gaining organizational alignment on strategy and delivering creative solutions that solve real business problems.