Una works at the Bustle Digital Group, which publishes a lot of different properties. She used to work at Watson, at Bluemix and at Digital Ocean. They all have something in common (other than having blue in their logos). They all had design systems that failed.
Design systems are so hot right now. They allow us think in a componentised way, and grow quickly. There are plenty of examples out there, like Polaris from Shopify, the Lightning design sytem from Salesforce, Garden from Zendesk, Gov.uk, and Code For America. Check out Anna’s excellent styleguides.io for more examples.
What exactly is a design system?
It’s a broad term. It can be a styleguide or visual pattern library. It can be design tooling (like a Sketch file). It can be a component library. It can be documentation of design or development usage. It can be voice and tone guidelines.
When Una was in College, she had a print rebranding job—letterheads, stationary, etc. She also had to provide design guidelines. She put this design guide on the web. It had colours, heading levels, type, logo treatments, and so on. It wasn’t for an application, but it was a design system.
Primer by Github is a good example of this. You can download pre-made icons, colours, etc.
Code usage guidelines
AirBnB has a really good example of this. It’s a consistent code style. You can even include it in your build step with
Design usage documentation
Carbon by IBM does a great job of this. It describes the criteria for deciding when to use a pattern. It’s driven by user experience considerations. They also have general guidelines on loading in components—empty states, etc. And they include animation guidelines (separately from Carbon), built on the history of IBM’s magnetic tape machines and typewriters.
Voice and tone guidelines
Of course Mailchimp is the classic example here. They break up voice and tone. Voice is not just what the company is, but what the company is not:
- Fun but not silly,
- Confident but not cocky,
- Smart but not stodgy,
- and so on.
Voiceandtone.com describes the user’s feelings at different points and how to communicate with them. There are guidelines for app users, and guidelines for readers of the company newsletter, and guidelines for readers of the blog, and so on. They even have examples of when things go wrong. The guidelines provide tips on how to help people effectively.
Why do design systems fail?
Una now asks who in the room has ever started a diet. And who has ever finished a diet? (A lot of hands go down).
Nobody uses it
At Digital Ocean, there was a design system called Buoy version 1. Una helped build a design system called Float. There was also a BUI version 2. Buoy was for product, Float was for the marketing site. Classic example of 927. Nobody was using them.
Una checked the CSS of the final output and the design system code only accounted for 28% of the codebase. Most of the CSS was over-riding the CSS in the design system.
Happy design systems scale good standards, unify component styles and code and reduce code cruft. Why were people adding on instead of using the existing sytem? Because everyone was being judged on different metrics. Some teams were judged on shipping features rather than producing clean code. So the advantages of a happy design systems don’t apply to them.
It’s like going to the gym. Small incremental changes make a big difference over the long term. If you just work out for three months and then stop, you’ll lose all your progress. It’s like that with design systems. They have to stay in sync with the live site. If you don’t keep it up to date, people just won’t use it.
It’s really important to have a solid core. Accessibility needs to be built in from the start. And the design system needs ownership and dedicated commitment. That has to come from the organisation.
You have to start somewhere.
Communication is multidimensional; it’s not one-way. The design system owner (or team) needs to act as a bridge between designers and developers. Nobody likes to be told what to do. People need to be involved, and feel like their needs are being addressed. Make people feel like they have control over the process …even if they don’t; it’s like perceived performance—this is perceived involvement.
Ask. Listen. Make your users feel heard. Incorporate feedback.
Good communication is important for getting buy-in from the people who will use the design system. You also need buy-in from the product owners.
Showing is more powerful than telling. Hackathans are like candy to a budding design system—a chance to demonstrate the benefits of a design system (and get feedback). After a hackathon at Digital Ocean, everyone was talking about the design system. Weeks afterwards, one of the developers replaced Bootstrap with BUI, removing 20,000 lines of code! After seeing the impact of a design system, the developers will tell their co-workers all about it.
You need to build with composability and change in mind. Primer, by Github, has a core package, and then add-ons for, say, marketing or product. That separation of concerns is great. BUI used a similar module-based approach: a core codebase, separate from iconography and grid.
Semantic versioning is another important part of having a solid architecture for your design system. You want to be able to push out minor updates without worrying about breaking changes.
Use the same convention in your design files, like Sketch.
What about tech stack choice? Every company has different needs, but one thing Una recommends is: don’t wait to namespace! All your components should have some kind of prefix in the class names so they don’t clash with existing CSS.
Una mentions Solid by Buzzfeed, which I personally think is dreadful (count the number of
!important declarations—you can call it “immutable” all you want).
AtlasKit by Atlassian goes all in on React. They’re trying to integrate Sketch into it, but design tooling isn’t solved yet (AirBnB are working on this too). We’re still trying to figure out how to merge the worlds of design and code.
This is what it’s all about. Using the design system has to be the path of least resistance. If the new design system is harder to use than what people are already doing, they won’t use it.
Provide hooks and tools for the people who will be using the design system. That might be mixins in Sass or it might be a script on a CDN that people can just link to.
Start early, update often. Design systems can be built retrospectively but it’s easier to do it when a new product is being built.
Bugs and cruft always increase over time. You need a mechanism in place to keep on top of it. Not just technical bugs, but visual inconsistencies.
So the five pillars of ensuring a successful design system are:
- Solid architecture
- Reduce friction
When you’re starting, begin with a goal:
We are building a design system because…
Then review what you’ve already got (your existing codebase). For example, if the goal of having a design system is to increase page performance, use Web Page Test to measure how the current site is performing. If the goal is to reduce accessibility problems, use webaim.org to measure the accessibility of your current site (see also: pa11y). If the goal is to reduce the amount of CSS in your codebase, use cssstats.com to test how your current site is doing. Now that you’ve got stats, use them to get buy-in. You can also start by doing an interface inventory. Print out pages and cut them up.
Once you’ve got buy-in and commitment (in writing), then you can make technical decisions.
You can start with your atomic elements. Buttons are like the “Hello world!” of design systems. You’ve colours, type, and different states.
Then you can compose elements by putting the base elements together.
Do you include layout in the system? That’s a challenge, and it depends on your team. If you do include layout, to what extent?
Regardless of layout, you still need to think about space: the space between base elements within a component.
Bake in accessibility: every hover state should have an equal (not opposite) focus state.
Think about states, like loading states.
Then you can start documenting. Then inform the users of the system. Carbon has a dashboard showing which components are new, which components are deprecated, and which components are being updated.
Keep consistent communication. Design and dev communication has to happen. Continuous iteration, support and communication are the most important factors in the success of a design system. Code is only 10% of a sytem.
Also, don’t feel like you need to copy other design systems out there. Your needs are probably very different. As Diana says, comparing your design system to the polished public ones is like comparing your life to someone’s Instagram account. To that end, Una says something potentially contraversial:
You might not need a design sytem.
If you’re the only one at your organisation that cares about the benefits of a design system, you won’t get buy-in, and if you don’t get buy-in, the design system will fail. Maybe there’s something more appropriate for your team? After all, not everyone needs to go to the gym to get fit. There are alternatives.
Find what works for you and keep at it.