Three steps to jump-start your design system

Danny Groenen - 9 July 2020

We see design systems all around us these days. They increase product consistency and speed up the development process in the long-term. Businesses benefit from more frequent deliveries, designers experience less design-debt, design and development collaborate more frequent, and in the end – share goals while working on shared repositories.

Design systems create value. As a result, businesses evolve and design becomes more impactful. Implementing a design system the right way changes how companies behave and organise internal design and development operations: from governance, people, workflow, resources, to scaling and opening up for experimentation.

This article is for designers who want to implement design systems and want to create movement or change in organisations – a challenge we all face as designers. Go ahead and dive in to see how.

1. Map your current situation

When we begin something new, it's crucial to be aware of the current situation. System designers usually underestimate the importance of understanding context and immediately dive deep into tools. Capturing current circumstances helps to make an impact with your work. 

A dive into DesignOps: Understand how the organisation works

Learn to read into the organisation. Who is responsible for what? What does the hierarchy look like? Which people are essential to transform the system into a success? Dive in DesignOps. Draw an organisational model, write down key players, roles, and responsibilities. Next, talk to stakeholders to understand their goals, and complete your observation.

Get a clear picture of the design state

No matter what company you find yourself at, learn about the state of design. How is design seen in the organisation? Implementing a design system is different for more mature organisation where they thrive and rely on design - or development-driven decisions, than for a less mature companies that may not yet know the true value of design. Find out how the design system can elevate the design quality. Questions that might help estimate the design state: 

  • Where on the maturity ladder is our design practice?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How can we get there?
  • Do we have the right talent for a strong team already?
  • How will a design system help us?
  • Who should be responsible for the design system?

Find out what you need

System designers encounter various obstacles in the first weeks. Although a lot of articles are out there, there is no 100% company-fit handbook to solve your challenges for example on topics such as: how to share a vision with product departments, how to get the right tools blueprinted, or how to become visible for external design teams operating in the same product landscape.

Designers have certain needs before they can do a good job. Find out what you need, ask questions, and tackle challenges as fast you can. 

Pick the right tools

A while ago, we released an article about the best tools for documenting design systems. You might want to take a look for inspiration or to learn about our findings. We compared best in class tools to craft a design system no matter the scale of your company or client.

A design system is a living artifact and is a result of an empirical process.

2. Commit to a system strategy

As for any other product we design, a design system needs a strategy to succeed. A strategy is a tactical plan and plays an important, if not a critical role in the success and outcome of the goals for any system. 

Define your goal

Start with the ambition of your design system. What is your purpose or desired outcome? Having a goal helps to create a vision, which ensures everyone to look in the same direction. 

Create milestones

Quarterly or monthly milestones are key to reach your goal. They serve as a roadmap and shape your plan to getting there. They also indicate your progress. Make sure others can find your milestones and don't forget to mention them while presenting.

Deliver transparency

Stakeholders who aren't familiar with design often see the design system as a project. Therefore, they may often try to demand a deadline or ask you when it's completed. The fact is, however, a design system is never completed.

A design system is a living artifact and is a result of an empirical process. To keep up with new technologies and customer expectations it demands adoption and needs evolvement when new customer findings, feature improvements, or business requests pop up. 

Best you can do is be transparent and take stakeholders along your journey. Ask early and often about their opinion, share design decisions, milestones, updates, and documentation company-wide. 

"A design system isn't a project, it's a product, serving products."Nathan Curtis, Partner of EightShapes & Design Systems Consultant

3. Get organisational buy-in

It requires teamwork to get a design system up and running. Therefore, you need like-minded advocates for support. A compelling design system arises from a well-organised team of professionals, consisting mainly of developers. Finding these people who think alike and believe in such a system is fundamental to achieve your goals.

Spread the word

To ensure design system adaption, you should spread the word and do it often. Ask the person responsible for your department to introduce you and your work to the organisation – at least to key stakeholders. The best time this can happen is in the first week you start working on the system. Maybe you find like-minded advocates already!

Find out what meetings to attend

Each week design and development meet in knowledge sessions or retrospectives. Find the host and schedule your talks. Take the stage early and often and grow your image as a design system expert.

Partner with development

Being visible results in other supporters willing to contribute. Especially developers as they work even more systematically than designers. Establish a partnership with at least one dedicated developer. With development skills added, the building can begin, and an even more reliable system will be created. You can then also fall back on each other and find feasible solutions together. 

"For a positive impact, share your work in a series of presentations. Sell the output, not the process."

Become visible on an organisational scale

To further camapaign for your goal and show your expertise on design systems, you can increase your visibility with a roadshow. For a positive impact, share your work in a series of presentations. Sell the output, not the process. Show results and talk about the business impact to educate the organization.

Think as a stakeholder

In one way or another, showing progress alone doesn’t sell. You need facts. The reason is simple. Stakeholders can’t estimate the value of a design system when it’s in progress and isn’t released nor used. What they do know is that (big) budgets will be spent. For this reason, show results as fast as possible and keep stakeholders supportive. So get on their radar and let’s talk business.

Build on metrics and collect data to back up your claims as you progress over time. Here is what you might want to think about:

Design

  • Efficiency: Time left for finding creative solutions as a result of a central library
  • Consistency: The usage of UX patterns to increase consistency
  • Uniformity: Number of components in the library for designers to work with

Development

  • Efficiency: Reduced amount lines of code due to a central repository
  • Consistency: Time saved reusing components vs custom building
  • Performance: Increased feature delivery time per sprin
  • Nurturing: Reduced amount of time maintaining the system
  • Progress: Number of components in the repository over time

Team

  • Operations: Defined roles to manage workflow governance
  • Satisfaction: Increased team happiness based on surveys, workshops, and retrospectives

Reach out to stakeholders

Stakeholders, often product managers or product owners, have the authority to make decisive moves in the software development process. They open and close doors as no-one can. These guardians aim for seamless and valuable software implementation. And for this reason, they are important people to contribute to your design system. They even may manage your backlog, unlock new budgets, or scale up or down development capacity. Reach out, build relationships, and learn all about your stakeholder goals. Once you are familiar with their goals or personal objectives it can be relatively easy to move mountains. Certainly, you will need their support in the future. And probably, you strive for the same quality they do. 

Be available

When you're advocating for a design systems, you might prepare yourself for tons of questions. And often tough ones. For the most lucratcie results, you would want to show you your work seriously. Take time to answer questions and be available. Share expecatitons on how you want to receive support and be clear how they can reach you. 

We are here for you

Rome wasn’t built in one day. Neither is a design system. Crafting a design system can be challenging and requires a one hundred percent commitment. Nevertheless, having one is a quality injection for any software-driven organization.

At Hike One, we have created multiple design systems and help clients as we speak mature software applications. We also learned that once it's up and running, new difficulties arise. How to deal with ownership? How to design for maintenance? And how to keep your system at all times supported? Surely, after implementation there is even more to keep an eye on.

Do you have questions or need some advice? We are happy to think along, just reach out to us!

Danny Groenen

Visual Designer, Design Principal

Let’s rebuild your design process

Contact us

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