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Design systems are not just about design
How to get the most of out them
It’s been just over six months since I started sending out this regular newsletter. I started out wanting to write about people, psychology and design for business leaders who want to make meaningful change.
The topic I keep coming back to is how building a company that’s inclusive by default can help business leaders reach their strategic goals. Our most popular posts to date have been: How to think about the future of accessible design, If you want to mitigate risk, tell a disastrous story, and The design research tech that lets you read customers' minds
On the surface, these posts are all about designing for accessibility, but at their core, they’re really about the complex relationship between people and technology. The real secret to digital transformation always lies with people. It’s never about the technology, but the humans who are using it.
Taking that one step further today, I’ve invitedto share his insights about the underappreciated reason that design systems are so important for a digital transition.
My best wishes as you navigate your week,
P.S. We’re taking a summer holiday – normal newsletter service will resume in August ☀️
Design systems are not just about design.
A design system is a centralised collection of reusable components, guidelines, and assets that ensures consistency and efficiency in the creation of digital platforms and products. But too many focus on the bells and whistles of design while neglecting the people and infrastructure that are essential to their success.
This is a mistake, because design systems can be a powerful tool for building a more collaborative culture within an organisation that’s striving to become inclusive by default. Put simply, if the building blocks of your design system aren't accessible, then any resultant digital services or products you build will also not be accessible.
When done right, design systems can:
Increase accessibility: Enabling organisations to create digital products that are accessible to everyone
Foster collaboration: Providing a common ground for all business functions to collaborate and share ideas, leading to improvements
Build community: Fostering a network across an organisation who are passionate about creating inclusive and accessible digital products.
So let’s talk about the crucial role design systems play in digital transformations.
During lockdown, we created a new design system team for a client. We approached it like a “watercooler”, a way for the emerging design and development groups within the organisation to communicate with each other, like a secret underground network connecting creators who would otherwise be isolated in their own individual areas.
The secret to getting the most out of a design system in a large corporate, and ultimately meeting its strategic goals, is to use it as a community-building tool.
Inspired by, Kevin Huynh and Kai Elmer Sotto’s Get Together, we’ve developed a three-step process for doing just that. And it’s a three-step process.
1. Find your people
Before we made anything, our team were like a travelling band. We acted as consulting designers and developers, walking between teams, capturing the best ideas, supporting others, and gently recruiting people to our cause.
We made sure to do outreach, and that new voices were brought into the system. We did this by onboarding new product designers and developers into the system; making sure it was part of any new joiner’s second-day programme to meet the team and learn about the system.
This meant we weren’t founding the design system out of context; we were always working with the messy reality of the work our teams were doing from the very beginning (rather than working with some purist, abstract idea of design). Teams got to know us early, and this helped solidify our position as helpful people who knew their way around the brand, recognised quality, and called out good work when they saw it.
2. Do stuff together
Next, we started running internal get-togethers, conferences, confabs, workshops and happenings around the system itself. We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about colours, typefaces and buttons. Our Head of Transformation described these system sessions as “a cross between a Jeremy Vine Radio 2 phone-in and Loose Women.” (I took this as a compliment because she recognised the exchange of ideas taking place and the entertainment value of what we were doing.)
Our model for system sessions spread; people heard about this turbine of sharing and discussions. Others picked up on what we were doing, dropped in on our workshops for a few weeks, and then spun up copycat institutions in their communities of practice.
Our sessions created two things: a shared central truth about how we design product experiences, held and subscribed to by the community, and a network of product designers and developers across the organisation working together to help shape that truth.
This meant that we had people around us who felt invested in the system, and part of the community to make it a success. Rather than creating a rigid system, conscious decisions were made about what to defend (foundations) and what to enable (complex components). A design system is not a static artefact – it’s a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving.
3. Pass the torch
True federation is hard in design systems. It requires a lot of upfront investment, and it can be difficult to maintain. (Amy Hupe wrote a great explainer about the usage and contribution challenges of design systems last year.)
One of the biggest challenges in design systems is getting everyone in the organisation to use and contribute to the system. It's never easy to get people to change their ways.
But it's possible.
I’ve seen it done and it starts with empowerment. We gave people spotlights and listened to their feedback. We incorporated their ideas and gave them ownership. Over time, they became invested in the system and advocated for it within their teams. This is how you build a federated design system.
When people feel like they have a stake in the system, they're more likely to use it and contribute to it. And when you have a federated design system, you have a powerful tool that can help you to achieve not only your product and service goals– but also your strategic ones, too.
Top three tips for kicking off design system work for the first time
Be a magpie. There’s loads of stuff in your org that’s worth capturing and storing. Talk to your teams, find it all, gather it all in and use that as the foundation for your system.
Get a bit picky. Once you’ve brought it all together, you need rules for what you adopt into the system, and what you publish out of the system. You’re looking for ‘quality,’ tightly defined. Quality is not a throwaway term here: adopt things that are unique and useful, then publish them once they’re consistent, versatile and usable.
Recruit your evangelists. Design systems need to be influencers in your product design and development communities. Find people who hold sway, and get them onside and talking about it.
We're super excited to announce that Nile is the latest partner to Panmure House, the last residence of Scottish Economist Adam Smith! 🥳
Panmure House is a leading centre for commercial, economic and philosophical debate, which aims to host the most essential conversations of our time. We're excited to join the network of supporters and become part of the conversations around sustainable capitalism, hopefully helping to shape a positive economic future.
You can find out more about Panmure on their website.
DBI Summit 2023
We recently hosted the 2023 DBI Summit, 40+ Americans and Europeans from our consulting network joined us for three days of exploration and networking.
DBI is a specialist consulting network of which Nile is a founding partner. The network focuses on supply chain challenges and transitions toward digital business operating models.
Nile is a Strategic Design team that helps deliver human-centred change in highly regulated industries. Our methods engage employees and customers with new technology and ways of working. Our outcomes help save money and improve business performance.
If you think we can help your teams, reply directly to this email (they come straight to my inbox), or reach out to someone specific via our website.
Thanks for reading! 🚀