Enterprise Design Systems Management

The Need for Design Systems

Ben Callahan

Ben Callahan

Enterprise Design Systems Management

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The "The Need for Design Systems" 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 two key takeaways from previous consulting engagements. The intersection between scale and longevity when deciding if there is a need to create a design system is also covered in this segment.


Transcript from the "The Need for Design Systems" Lesson

>> Let's get started. And I'll actually begin with a quick story. At the end of 2021, I led two consulting engagements with two very large enterprise organizations. Both of these companies were I don't know how to say it. They were huge organizations, billions of dollars in revenue. They both have had design systems for years.

They both had fully dedicated teams. They had real budgets established, real timelines. They actually had folks that were subscribing to the system. They had all of it. It was all going. But they were both also feeling some frustration. They felt like they were stuck in the maturity of their systems.

And so, they hired us to come and to just do an assessment and help them sorta understand where are they and what have they missed that's keeping them from being able to move forward in a healthy way? And so when we take on that kinda work usually it starts with just a discovery process.

So we sat down and did interviews with probably I don't know as as many people as we could get [LAUGH] at each of these organizations. We talked with their leadership, we talked with folks on their design system teams and we even spent a lot of time talking with subscribers or consumers of their design systems.

And we learned a ton of stuff from all these folks. And I will say that completing these two consulting engagements kinda running in parallel the at the end of that year, it left me with two really big takeaways. The first takeaway is that there's still a lot of confusion out there about what design systems are.

Every person that I talked to inside both of these companies had a different definition. They had a different idea of why they were doing it. They had different benefits they were hoping to get from it. And it just really made me realize that even inside very large organizations that from the outside it seems like they've got it all together.

When you get in there, folks are still trying to figure this out. They just there's a lot of confusion still. So that was my kinda first big takeaway. And the second was that almost all the teams I've interacted with feel like they're not fully getting the benefit of a systematic design practice.

You spend all this time and all this money and all this energy putting this thing in place, building these processes and writing documentation and creating a really good usable system. And in the end when you try to measure this stuff it's really hard to show that it was worth the investment.

So these two takeaways kinda left me feeling like, we at least me at Spark box. I hadn't done a good job explaining systems to our clients. And so I spent about a year and a half looking at every design system I could get my hands on. And what I found is I kinda needed to take information from all of these sources and lots of interviews to kinda pull together what for me has become kinda stake in the ground when we do work with clients.

We try to sit them down and say, here's the big picture and that's kinda what I wanna share with you here. And any good definition has to start with the context. So for a design system the our context looks kinda like this. Every organization Is trying to connect its brand to some audience right at a very, very high level.

This is what companies are trying to do. [LAUGH] And they do that in a ton of different ways, right? Sometimes they print stuff shows up in my mailbox, even though I never asked for it. [LAUGH] Sometimes they make amazing in store experiences, right? They're trying to sorta transfer their brand in the physical world to their customers.

Sometimes they do advertising. I listen to a lot of podcasts and so now I'm tuned in to podcast advertisements more than I have in the past. And pretty much every organization today has a major touchpoint of their digital experiences. So things like websites or native applications, kiosks, lots of different places where a digital interface can live.

And I think that this kinda gives us the context for design system. Your system has to sit between your brand and the digital experiences that we design, build and deploy in order to connect with the desired audience. I think this context is really important because it helps us to understand the inputs and the outputs of a really effective design system.

Our systems are fed by the overarching brand identity, the mission, the vision, the values, all of that stuff right that lives at the brand level. And they have to take everything that's offered at the brand level. And all the stuff from that that's needed to conceptualize, prototype, design and build digital interfaces across platforms and channels.

That's kinda what they have to offer on the output side. In this context also helps you to decide your first big question, which is do I actually need a design system right? Now I like to break this question down in a couple of ways there's sorta two main factors that I think about, those two are scale and longevity.

Let's talk really quickly about each of these. So on the scale side, there's this idea of organizational scale. Of course, we're thinking about the number of teams, but there's a lot more than just the size of the organization. There's also the complexity of the organization. How are those teams structured?

Also, the maturity, this is a huge deal. How skilled are the individuals that you have inside your organization? If you have a single team that's made up of really skilled, high experienced folks, you probably don't need a system. That one team with really good folks are gonna be able to figure out how to do the work you need to do in an efficient way.

They're gonna create really cohesive experiences. So that's a situation where a small scale with really mature folks probably means you don't need this, you know? But if you've got a scale really good design across a complex organization with a variety of skill levels, well that's a scenario where a system can really help.

Also on the side of scale, there's the idea of whatever it is that you offer. So your products or your channels, of course the number of products is important, but also the number of channels. So if you've got a single e-commerce website, a system is not gonna make a huge impact, right?

If you just have one site, that's your main thing. But if you have multiple digital products across web, across native, across other digital touchpoints, then a system can really help in that situation. So that's the scale side of this decision factor. And the other side is longevity and this side is a little bit more about limiting your risk.

[LAUGH] So if you have to, you have to really think about considering the stability of the market and the stability of the product that you're working on. And that's because design systems are require a huge investment. So, if you're gonna spend all this time and money on a thing, you wanna make sure that that product that market is stable beyond at least a year, right?

It takes oftentimes a year or more for you to start to realize the value of a system. So these things are are expensive. The investment's high and it takes time for you to recoup that investment. This is why I talk about this as limiting risk, right? If your product is gonna go away in a year, it's probably not the one to start your design system with.

Of course, if the product and market are stable, this can be a really good way to get more efficiency out of your process. Or another model is where you have some really stable products but you wanna experiment with other ideas. And so you can use the stability of a set of your products to kinda be the guinea pig for your design system.

And that gives you then, the ability to use that system to prototype new ideas in a really rapid way. In general, I kinda feel like having one of these on your side is enough to really consider a system. But if you've got two, it makes a much more compelling case, right?

So if you've got a very stable product, but you've got a really high complexity organization. That's probably enough for you to really think about doing a system. If you don't have any of this, I would probably say maybe don't worry about it yet. [LAUGH] But if you've got all three, that's definitely a scenario where a system can make a huge, impact.

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