Why Design Systems Fail

Style guides and design systems are all the rage right now, and using them has become incredibly popular.

Typically, Brand Guidelines or Design Standards focus on visual branding, identity and tone-of-voice. Others encompass a broader “Global Experience Language” — from the visual branding, tone-of-voice and icon sets, through to UI components and code libraries.

Whatever the terminology, shape or form, they can include any or all of the following:

These design systems promote a modular approach to creating communications and building products or applications. They help onboard new team members, designers and developers quickly, and are a great educational resource on your organisation’s design principles, tools and methods.

With “digital” proliferation, the definition of “design standards” has broadened to encompass utility libraries, UI components and reusable code snippets. Therefore, design systems now also need to provide a common language between non-creatives (management), marketing teams, designers and developers.

For a design system to succeed, everyone needs to get on board.

In this first of our five part series, “FABRICS”, we’re going to look at 7 key principles to ensure design system success and showcase what could cause failure. And, in coming weeks, we’ll delve into the systems themselves and nut out what makes a winning system that everyone loves to follow:

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Your new design system needs to be easier to use than your current system. If it’s not, people won’t use it and it will quickly become outdated.

It must not add overhead to the user’s daily processes. If it’s complicated and unnecessarily over-engineered, users will find it frustrating to use and probably won’t bother following it. They’ll go back to what they know, even if it’s wrong.

The design system should onboard new users quickly, make creation more efficient and guide them step-by-step through the communications, artwork and applications that they need to create.

You therefore need to understand the audience using the system and adapt it to them.

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The design system must be built with growth and scalability in mind.

Developing a solid architecture early on in the process ensures the system can scale up with new products, business or market segments.

This includes everything from file naming, categorisation and name spaces – to versioning and modularity. E.g. to ensure all new assets in the new system don’t clash with existing assets, it’s best to prefix all files and elements in the new space.

There should also be multiple ways to consume content and information, so adoption is easy and there is no on-boarding friction.

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Buy-in needs to come from all levels of the organisation, so its important to include your designers, marketing staff and developers, as well as your management team in the preliminary stages.

To get buy-in, you need to communicate and show them how it will benefit them and add value.

It’s always best to “soft launch” a new design system and have a small number of key stakeholders experience and test the system for themselves. It’s a smart way to get instant feedback on the system — in a low-stakes situation.

These users should then help you improve and evangelise the design system before it’s rolled out to the broader business/community.

You also need to consider onboarding for new users of the design system – whether this be a formal video training session, online walk-thru or PowerPoint presentation.

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Often, this is where the design system fails — nobody takes responsibility or ownership of the new system.

You need to ensure someone is ultimately responsible for the system. Whether it be the marketing, design or development team, or all of above, the system is more likely to stay up-to-date (and relevant) when there is accountability.

This team (or individual) should be responsible for:

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Successful design systems require you to continually reinvest resources to ensure they stay current (and relevant).

As new content is created across the business, a design system may need to evolve. So plan for the fact that you need to invest time in updating and tweaking the system, otherwise it will fall out of sync with current use.

To gain effectiveness, you must keep working on them so they continue to have a large impact across the business.

You cannot “set and forget” a design system once implemented. Making small investments of time, incrementally over time, will keep the system up-to-date and lead to huge wins overall.

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Building a great design system and communicating your needs and requirements across brand, design, marketing, technology and finance, is challenging.

Someone needs to make the final decisions on execution and direction so the structure and creation of the solution works for everyone.

With so many important components of the system coming together to form a “global language”, it’s important that everyone feels like they are being heard and have input.

It’s especially important in larger organisations for teams not to work in silos. Therefore, ensure each team has representatives that communicate with each other often — to ensure all components align.

This communication should occur early on in the systems creation process.

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Support (or Organisational Support)

A design system needs support from the top and bottom levels of your organisation to nurture and grow.

Project Managers and Directors (CEO, CTO, CIO, CMO) need to see the value of a design system, to provide resources for its implementation, and to advocate company-wide for its use.

Designers and developers at all levels also need to feel responsibility for this system and support it. Everyone should feel confident contributing to it, including external contractors and partners.

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You can see how easy it is for the system to fail, but if you consider each of the 7 key principles when planning your design system, this initial investment will easily be rewarded with large cost-saving returns.

And, if you do need to onboard new team members, designers or developers quickly, the design system is a great educational resource to get up to speed on your organisation’s design principles, tools and methods.

In coming weeks, we’ll delve into the systems themselves and nut out what makes a winning system that everyone loves to follow.

For help in setting up a Design System, contact us to request a discussion with our Professional Services team.

3 December 2018