Enterprise Design Systems Management

Consistency & Flexibility

Ben Callahan

Ben Callahan

Enterprise Design Systems Management

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The "Consistency & Flexibility" Lesson is part of the full, Enterprise Design Systems Management course featured in this preview video. Here's what you'd learn in this lesson:

Ben discusses managing a combination of flexibility and consistency in the system design. The system should enable creativity while the culture encourages restraint.


Transcript from the "Consistency & Flexibility" Lesson

>> Another thing that happens a lot in stage three is, in fact there's a conversation about this usually early on, especially in engineering led design systems. And that's when the dev team, or the engineering team says look, your designs are all over the place, we need some way of roping this in.

And so we want consistency, so we're gonna build a system that creates consistency out of the chaos you give us. [LAUGH] And what happens is early on usually a few designers are like, my gosh, what are you talking about? The design system is gonna take my job away, it's gonna do the job for me.

What do I even need to be here for if all of the things we've designed are just in the system and I don't need to do the work anymore? That's usually a conversation that maybe surfaces briefly early on, but stage three is where it really rears its head.

And that's because now people are actually using this thing and they're getting to feel the rub here, they feel does the system force me into consistency or does it offer me flexibility? And I actually hate this slide [LAUGH] in my deck, because I actually don't think that this is an either or situation.

I like to think about it more like this, I can have an inflexible system or I can have a flexible system. I can create inconsistent output in my products, or I can create consistent output in my products. All of these are possible, all of these quadrants. Nobody wants to be in the bottom left, right, inconsistent output with an inflexible system.

So we're gonna ignore that one, we're gonna assume that at least you've got something happening in top left, right, or bottom right. But let's talk a little bit about these quadrants, okay. In the top left we've got a really flexible system, but that's resulting in very inconsistent output.

So the system lets you do anything you want and people are doing anything they want, [LAUGH] this is not a good place. There's unclear or no guidelines maybe in that system. There are processes not really open for conversation, they're pretty closed. There's poor or no governance, that means we're not testing, we haven't defined quality.

And maybe there's a false sense of trust here. Because I've said hey, the system is flexible, I trust you to do with it what you want, but the results are not good. I kind of think of this as like that Wild West culture. Now in the bottom right we've got consistent output, but the system itself is really inflexible.

So we're forcing consistency upon people with a really rigid system, an inflexible system. So this, instead of sort of that false sense of trust, this I think of as more of a lack of trust. You've removed flexibility, you've taken away my ability to do the things, from my perception as a designer perhaps, that I need to do, so I'm not contributing, you don't trust me.

And this is a really kind of a space of just creative frustration for folks on the design research UX side of the work. Of course, what we want is a really flexible system that enables people to not have that frustration experience, to have real trust, and we want them to create consistent output with it.

[LAUGH] So that's where we we do things with our system that are very clear guidelines. Open processes, there's a lot more transparency. We've taken the time to actually define governance, what does quality mean for us, and we've defined that well. Perhaps that lives at the foundational level, even in something like our design principles or values, and it filters all the way up through everything, all the way up to components.

There's a high level of trust here that the team is unified. And the organization values consistency, so the culture creates consistency. And this is where i kind of land with systems like this, I think I would say that you need both. You need flexibility, your system does need to be flexible because things are gonna change and your system has to be able to accommodate that.

But of course you want your products to be more consistent and more cohesive. So your system has to enable that creativity, it has to be flexible, but your culture has to encourage restraint. And that's the way that you're able to create something that actually offers a lot of value and has really a lot of breadth in terms of what its capabilities are.

I've written a lot more about this here at this article on our blog, it's just The Myth of Creative Restraint in Design Systems. So in the notes you'll be able to go take a peek at this if that's of interest to you.

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