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Taking a step back from design systems and tools to refocus on the people they impact

Design systems are a ‘thing’ these days. From GOV.UK’s Design System to IBM’s Carbon, from Sainsbury’s Luna to Bulb Energy’s Solar, it seems like most organisations have one. If you’re suffering from fear of missing out, there are tools to help you roll out your own, such as Google’s Material Design.

This was my background when I attended the second ever Patterns Day event. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was preparing to be bombarded with guidelines, processes and an immediate urge to dive in head first.

Instead, Patterns Day provided a refreshing pause for thought and a reflective look at the bigger picture.

Settling down in the audience for Patterns Day 2019

The potential benefits of design systems

In the first talk of the day, Alla Kholmatova considered what could be gained from using a design system.

Consistency in visual branding and patterns is a key benefit seen by the GOV.UK team. The public can easily tell that they are on a genuine Government website, which builds trust.

Increasing revenue is often used as an argument for design systems. Alla worked on a project where this claim could be analysed in detail and found only a negligible 0.17% increase in revenue.

It was easier to make small iterations to individual components and assess their impact in isolation. In one example, including a progress bar led to an increase in the number of online forms completed. A separate case study showed a 50% saving on front-end development time thanks to a focus on form patterns.

This reminds us that a design system by itself is not a cure-all: there needs to be a bigger goal, beyond the design system itself, for the system to have any impact.

Investing in a design system

If a design system is to be successful, it needs internal buy-in. Inayaili de León Persson highlighted the importance of accepting that a ‘design team’ will tend to work more slowly than a ‘features team’. Indeed, a design system may be of less use for a new product or service than to a mature counterpart.

Documentation takes time but it is critical to the success of a design system. The people who are going to be using it in their work need to know where it is and how to use it – irrespective of their job role or background experience.

As Amy Hupe pointed out, documentation can be a great way of selling a design system internally, making people want to use it. Clear, consistent guidelines help to improve communication within a team. Being honest about current gaps in the system can prompt contributions and improvements.

Maintaining focus on what’s important

Danielle Huntrods touched upon how easy it can be to lose the overall context if we focus too deeply on the components of a design system. It’s important to keep track of the end goal that a team is working towards.

We should be aware of gaps and overlaps within a team, exemplified by:

  • Duplication of effort
  • Conflict over ownership
  • Incorrect implementation
  • Recurrent miscommunication
  • Excessive iteration

It can be tempting to think that a design system can even out such gaps and overlaps. But this puts us at risk of throwing yet another tool at a problem that is more of a people/process issue.

Which brings me neatly to my key takeaway from Patterns Day 2019:

Design systems impact products and services. Products and services impact people.

Amy Hupe, Senior Content Designer, Government Digital Service

It’s important to remember the ultimate users of our design systems: the wider audience of people who have to use the output from those same systems. Whether it’s a single page app or a complex website, the design system behind it has a fundamental impact on the user experience.

Yes, we want to create joyful and engaging experiences. We also have a duty to be mindful of our audience, and follow the guiding principles of accessibility:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

People need to be at the forefront of our work, irrespective of the processes and technology we choose to adopt.