5 Design System Fails—And Their Fixes

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Date published
June 17, 2020
A design system is a multi-layered tool that only works as well as your people and processes.

Back in March, our Design to Deliver event at our Amsterdam location, featured Nathan Weyers, COO of Phillips Design, and Kim Marchant, VP of Design Operations at JP Morgan Chase & Co. They spoke on design systems and design leadership, and offered some valuable insights on getting your design system working optimally, leading to better design maturity for your organization.

The value of a design system is in the path to design maturity. It’s potentially a long road, but it has real impact on your bottom line. Our partner InVision recently studied a number of organizations with design practices, and graded them on design maturity and their design efforts. Of the companies they surveyed, those with the most mature design practices reported that design thinking had proven impact on profitability. 92% reported increased revenue, 85% reported cost savings, 84% reported improved time-to-market, and 52% reported increased share prices.

A design system is a set of tools, processes, guidelines and philosophies for creating your company’s digital assets in a reliable fashion. The purpose of a design system is to not only systematize product development, but to also to promote more and better collaboration within and across your teams. When this doesn’t happen, there is often a fundamental piece missing. Fortunately, you can solve these problems, whether you’ve had your design systems for a few years or just a few months. Read on for some of the common problems organizations face with their design system, and how they can be addressed. You can view the full interview on our YouTube channel.

1. Achieving buy-in across teams and from senior leadership

When a design system is not effective as originally intended, it’s often because it starts in one department in a large organization, and they have trouble scaling it. Adoption is a big challenge, and a single team may build a tool that doesn’t fit with the other teams’ work or intended output. It’s hard to think big enough when you’re trying to evolve a design system organically, but without involving other teams earlier than you think you need, you risk building tools they can’t use.

To combat this problem, champions at the executive level are essential—and all the better if they come from outside the design department. To find these leaders, you’ll need proof that the design system has value, solves a business challenge you’re currently facing, and will continue to support the business in the future.

At JP Morgan Chase & Co., Kim noted that developing a business case is essential. “Through that very long process of explaining the benefits and then picking out very small experiments to trial, it helped us to get support to work on a bigger scale. That in itself is a challenge—how we would measure it, how it will benefit the business, how it relates to hard ROI—but it allows you to experiment and find that essential support.”

Nathan added, “For Phillips, it has to be a structural solution. When it comes down to investment, it's your design team's time. And that has to be allocated for, so you have to prove the ROI by finding the metrics that matter the most to your senior leadership.”

2. Getting investment for a new or existing design system

So how do you get the investment now that you have the proof? The trend for design systems and design thinking began with the promises for what a design system could do for your company in the future—but to spend money in the here and now, you need to identify its current value. This can be tricky when your design system hasn’t been implemented properly, and teams feel like it has caused more headaches than high points. To get investment, you must change your objectives.

Your objective is not to “get a design system”. A company getting a design system for the sake of it (or because it’s the latest and greatest thing, or because it’s “supposed to” increase revenue, solve problems for delivery, or any other reason) is doing the wrong thing.

A design system is just a tool that you use to solve bigger business challenges. Focus instead of the possibilities. A design system needs use cases. What are the real desired outcomes of your business? Focus on those business objectives, then see how the design system can be used to solve them. This will gain or reinvigorate interest and investment in your design system from the leaders in your organization.

What can your design system accomplish? If it’s not connected to any business objectives, you might as well not have one.

One attendee asked, “How can you convince the business that they should hire a dedicated team on the design system?”

Nathan responded, “You have to start with small pilots and proofs of concept or prototypes to prove the value. Philips has been around a long time, so there's been versions of the design system for years. But the recent iteration in the last five years really came on strong. We piloted it with a team of two, then five designers that tackled showing the value of having a consistent language for the thousands of pages in the application by standardizing a few key components. Doing that would clearly reduce development times in the long run, but it also had a lot of value for the end user of the application.”

3. Stalled design systems

Problems with implementation have a few sources. The first approach we recommend is treating your design system like a product, not a project. This means dedicating full resources to it, and expecting it to perform when it launches. A product has investment, a dedicated team, and continual updates after it launches.

When you treat your design system like a project, it’s too easy to fail. When you stop, the project turns into debt. A back-burner project that involves multiple teams is as good as dead. Focus on the advice under the ‘getting investment’ section above to get it moving again.

Contrary to our advice on starting small with a design system and growing it team-by-team, sometimes a design system fails because the teams think too big—they want buy-in across the organization from the start, rather than allowing it to begin on a small scale and grow naturally as their wins become apparent to others. While it’s important to plan for the future of your design system and ensure you build a tool that all teams can use, you also have to focus on achieving goals one step at a time. You can’t boil the ocean, eat the whole elephant at once, or do any of the catchphrases that are so prominent in our industry.

Another attendee asked Kim, “How can you ensure that a design system is taken as seriously internally as an external product for the company?”

She replied, “It absolutely should be treated the same because it's fundamental to all your company’s products. It has the same requirements in terms of managing the project, in terms of risk and progress, and of outcomes and measures. As a centralized investment, it can link to KPIs for your senior leadership to ensure its investment and success.”

4. Conflict and conflicting outputs

Communication between teams is key to a successful design system. While the point of the system is to reduce rework and establish certain-agreed upon principles for creating content for your applications, it doesn’t mean that your teams can reduce communication with one another. Inter-team conflict over the design system can arise when processes and responsibilities are not set into the documentation, or not agreed upon by all teams. It’s not enough to tell teams what they need to do—everyone has to agree and believe that the design system is making the work easier and better.

When the output of the design system doesn’t match the intention, the problem is often a missing feedback loop. This can be because your design, development and delivery teams are still too siloed from each other, or because documentation, design kits or tooling haven’t been kept up-to-date. Questions to address include: What’s the process for updating our design system? How do we communicate across teams? Who contributes to the design system, and who informs all teams when updates are needed or complete? With a design system implemented or nearly implemented, you can consider moving one or more designers from your design systems team into a design strategist role to work on these issues.

Kim noted, “A design system is a tool to bring design and engineers together. It is key to position it not as a tool for designers, but as a tool for product design and engineering. We brought those communities together under one design system community of practice, and introduced pair work with designers and developers to bridge the gap. Those two roles belong together because they cannot work in isolation.”

5. Unrealistic capacity expectations

The purpose of a design system is to make the work of building your applications flow faster, but this won’t necessarily work like turning on a new machine on a factory floor. Building in time for teams to adjust is essential, and some estimates advise that it will take a year between implementation and the intended capacity improvements. If your team is under significant pressure to perform with a new design system, it’s time to consider if the team is large enough to scope it, build it, document it and get it adopted widely. You may need to invest additional people resources in your team (treating it like a product, not a project), and consider some process improvements: Have you decided who controls the design system? Having a centralized locus of control will ensure that it functions the way it should for each team, and you get the most out of it in productivity and cost savings.

For enterprise organizations, you will need to consider hybrid models. Not all your products will necessarily adhere to the same branding and user experience expectations. A single design system may be a serious impediment to different branches of your business. A dedicated team can help to assess the need for a hybrid design system and work with your different teams and departments to create a tool they will want to use.

Nathan noted, “At Phillips, we're actively figuring out how to develop that design competence. Of course, there's the hybrid designer that comes out of universities now with five years of experience and that can develop, but we have to create space for that in our organization. Our hope is that the design system can reduce some of the mundane aspects of design work so that the team can strive for creativity in other areas. Of course, they need the right resources and to be allowed to focus on the right problems to ensure their success.”

The road to maturity

As mentioned, a high-functioning design system with wide adoption is the first step to getting to design maturity. A design system isn’t something that you have, it’s something that your teams do, every day. With your team, evaluate the effectiveness of your design system with the following design system health check.

Assess Your DS

If your design system is showing any of these symptoms it may be improperly implemented. Adopt the treatment protocols listed to get optimal health for your teams and processes.

These are the most common issues that plague design system implementation, but they are by no means the only issues your company may face. As each organization is unique, it’s important to look at your design system as a tool for solving your unique problems—and tune its processes, resourcing and intended outcomes to meet those challenges.

To learn more about the solutions to the kind of issues you may face in implementing a design system, tune in to our webinar Getting the Most from Your Design System on June 25th at 11:30 am EST. The webinar will also be available to view on demand starting in July on our webinar page.

Please note the quotes in this blog have been edited for clarity and length.

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