Insights

Why having a design system is good for business

December 14, 2017

This blog is from the archive of Adaptive Lab, now known as Idean UK

By Kat Medic

We’ve recently been on a journey with a major global bank to help them establish the foundations of a design system and introduce new ways of working.

Managing design in a large global organisation is hard. Teams now consist of diverse people and skillsets. They collaborate from different locations on many products or are remotely working on the same product.

The number of tools used during the design process is also growing, with companies like Sketch, Abstract and InVision constantly developing new solutions to support fast iteration cycles.

Brands such as Airbnb, Shopify, Apple and Google have led the way defining how to effectively implement large-scale design systems. There are also examples from governments: GOV.UK and the US GOV, to name a couple.

As a global business, our client is facing similar challenges. When we started working together, their design guidelines were inconsistent and difficult to access. They weren’t kept up with the portfolio of products and services developed across the entire business, either.

Designing and developing customer experiences without having access to the right resources and tools can be frustrating. Teams can end up independently reinventing solutions, creating varying quality and disjointed experience across the portfolio. It’s also slow and time consuming.

Every organisation is different. But the reasons for investing in design systems are fairly consistent:

Increase productivity and collaboration

Design is increasingly becoming more complex and involves more cross-functional teams than ever before. We’ve tested our work against the current process an employee needs to go through to create and share a prototype—and noticed the benefits right away. Having a shared design language, resources and guidelines empowers teams to collaborate and make better decisions. It also makes developing and testing their work faster.

“I’d like this tomorrow please” —employee working on customer experience

Save hours—even days

Reducing repetitive work by reusing established components allows employees to focus on solving real problems. Imagine having to try and guess what’s the most appropriate version of a button—out of a dozen variants available. Exactly.

After a few weeks of working on the structure and transferring existing assets, we held a workshop with the client to test the first iteration of the design system.

We found that the new process would save them hours, even days on some tasks. It also enables a more consistent implementation—and saves costs.

Improve the quality, consistency and accessibility

Having a single source of truth—a library of tried and tested components and patterns—will improve consistency, experience and accessibility of your products.

Only by looking at three recent projects, our client had noticed significant differences in the way simple elements had been designed. More importantly, this had led to inconsistent application of best practice. Auditing and organising the design patterns across products is an opportunity to test and codify best practice. Going through this process will improve the delivery of an entire product or service. Accessibility will become part of every interaction. By testing what has been taken for granted, it will surface the customer needs instead.

Grow the design community

Creating a design system can help to establish or strengthen the design community within an organisation. We’ve learned there is a need for cross-platform and cross-project design reviews to enable people to learn from each other’s successes and stop them from duplicating work. Involving representatives from different teams will also help spread the enthusiasm! More people that care about how things are done translates to more happy customers.

Make it easier to work with partners

Benefits of a design system extend beyond internal processes. Many organisations have made their design guidelines and examples of best practice public. That’s useful both when creating products within an operating system or designing a new government service.

What makes a design system

Organisations differ in their processes, size and team culture. These differences will also shape the different qualities of their design systems.

A basic design system includes an organisation’s design principles, brand foundations, a pattern library and a 
governance process for controlling the creation and 
update of the aforementioned items. An approach that works from design to code will have the greatest impact.

Three steps to take towards establishing a design system:

1. Start small and consider the needs of employees

Our project focused on helping employees closely involved in the design of customer experiences. We started with a common task – online forms used by customers to apply for financial products. These forms need to be regularly updated, checked and tested with customers, internal stakeholders and compliance teams. We’ve considered our client’s current design process and workflows—there isn’t a centralised design team and most employees currently use different tools. That’s why it was important to create a simple framework that would help them not just reuse existing components, but understand the purpose behind it and benefit from a new workflow.

2. Establish shared processes and governance

Governance and rigour are key to making the design system successful. We learned that while creating assets on the go is quick and might work in small teams, it’s an approach that over time inevitably results in disjointed products, services and processes across an entire business. Clear objectives and priorities will increase alignment between teams. To make a system scale and become successful across the company, it will need to follow an agreed approach and become part of a workflow.

3. Engage a wider community and create a culture of collaboration

Make the process of creating a design system transparent and open. Involve representatives from different teams ensuring feedback and participation. Communication strategy, knowledge-sharing, educating employees and having advocates within teams will also drive adoption across the organisation.

Design systems are not perfect

It grows with your business. The process of developing and refining the design system will be practised, delivered, and maintained over time—it does not end. To stay relevant, it needs to reflect the changing needs of the people using it.

During our project, we’ve made great progress with the client. They’ve moved from organising existing assets and styles to thinking about how to create a shared language and improve productivity and collaboration. We’ve also helped them make a plan to make it happen.

“It’s been fantastic to work with Adaptive Lab and benefit from their expertise on researching, executing and implementing an initial design system. We’re already starting to see where we can realise the benefits in the efficiency and consistency of our design work.” —Digital Customer Experience Manager

As designers, we learned that we take many decisions we make every day for granted. Setting up a design system is a challenge. It entails knowing why things are designed in a certain way and also being able to articulate and successfully transfer that knowledge to others.

However, there are some tasks that don’t require years of design training to complete. Many of them could be automated.

That’s what good systems do—they remove the need to do things that don’t bring value and allow people to focus on what they are actually trying to achieve.

Some reads on design systems that we’ve found useful: