Design systems came about as a simplified solution to the growing complexities of the world.
Design systems help modern, digitally mature organizations to operate better, optimize, and create tools for building products—a practice that is quickly becoming an industry unto itself. In fact, according to a 2021 study by SparkBox, 46% of product organizations surveyed have a team specifically dedicated to progressing their design system efforts.
Where the design system sits can tell you a lot about the way it’s used. If it lives under your Product Engineering organization, it’s likely a developer experience tool, making it easier for them to build and deploy UI and creative components. If it lives under brand or marketing, it's often a creative productivity tool, ensuring consistent brand expression across teams and touchpoints. And when its focus on one of these areas hurts another in return, it’s safe to say the system has failed to reach its potential.
That’s often where organizations miss their opportunity with design systems. The most important output of the system is rarely the design itself. Rather, it’s about bridging the gap around design intent—it’s the value in using systems as a communication tool for business alignment.
Helping teams communicate
As systems in large organizations reach a certain point, the challenge is no longer about building the pattern library or designing buttons and boxes— it's about communication. Communicating between teams, especially engineering and design, requires shared vocabulary and expressions of intent.
In SparkBox’s survey, the top challenges companies cited were Contribution, Adoption, and Governance. This is where proper documentation and guidelines come in. With tools that automate documentation so you can pull systems from native platforms such as Figma, and into specialized ones, like Adobe XD and Storybook, there’s plenty to help facilitate this.
Department-agnostic documentation helps to organize elements and components based on mental models familiar to the entire organization, starting from broad principles down to detailed specifications. It simply gets teams on the same page, focused more on co-creation, with less time spent trying to understand what the other team means.
A shared mission
To adopt a design system requires a commitment of intent, an investment of resources, and active contribution from stakeholders across the organization to continuously evolve and maintain that system.
Creating rules around contribution and decision-making is where governance comes in. But who is responsible? Committee-based governance, where decisions are centralized within a small group that represents multiple functions, is key to ensure that the system works as intended across the organization. In many cases, that team might look like design, engineering, and product leads.
A core part of system creation deals with defining a governance model—how stakeholders collaborate to prioritize work and make the right decisions so they can scale their operations to meet their goals. This usually takes the form of responsibilities like documentation, feature prioritization, backlog frameworks, and defining a contribution process.
In 2021, Adoption was reported as the #1 priority for design systems teams at organizations of all sizes and industries. How are you socializing the system? How do you identify ambassadors to work with project teams? Does your product and marketing community know about the latest system updates and release notes? As part of any design system strategy, an extensive knowledge library containing written artifacts, video tutorials, and AMAs should be deployed in support of widespread adoption.
Setting design system goals and defining success can be one of the most difficult tasks for teams to undertake. You could argue that system goals should be aligned with product goals. That might include conversion rates, usability scores, cart abandonment, and so on. However, there’s also a case for defining success from an organizational standpoint. Consider KPIs like time saved for designers and developers, system adoption rates, user satisfaction, and volume of resolutions solved across department lines—these can help identify how your business has adjusted to best leverage your system, and the operational efficiencies the system has driven for your business.
One last thing
It’s worth noting that investing in Systems Design practices isn’t just about design or product—it’s an opportunity to transform business practices across your organization. Not treating it as such increases the risk of losing business alignment, design intent, and even missing opportunities to build communication and employee engagement. If you want to see your company succeed, planning for organization-wide alignment, improved communication, and shared goals is key—and Systems Design is a pretty good place to start.