Tags: systems

6

sparkline

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

Scenario-Driven Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz

I’m at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition) taking notes during the talks. Here are my notes from Yesenia’s presentation…

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of change in web design as we have to adapt to so many viewports and platforms. We’ve gravitated towards design systems to manage this. Many people have written about the benefits of design systems, like AirBnB.

But how do you define a design system? You could say it’s a collection of reususable components.

Donella Meadows wrote Thinking in Systems. She said:

A system is an interconnected group of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

A good design system inspires people to work with it. A bad system gets bloated and unusable. Yesenia has seen systems fail when there’s too much focus on the elements, and not enough focus on how they come together. Yesenia has learned that we should start our design systems, not with components, or modules, or legos, but with user scenarios.

Yesenia works at Vox Media. They have eight editorial networks. Two and a half years ago, they started a project to move all of their products to one codebase and one design system. Maintaining and iterating on their websites was getting too cumbersome. They wanted to shift away from maintaining discrete brands to creating a cohesive system. They also wanted to help their editorial teams tell stories faster and better.

It was hard. Each brand has its own visual identity, editorial missions, and content needs. So even though they wanted eight brands to use one design system, there needed to be enough flexibility to allow for unique needs.

There were some early assumptions that didn’t work. There was a hunch that they could take smaller modular components to address inconsistencies in design: layout, colour, and typography. They thought a theming system would work well. They started with layout modules, like three different homepage hero elements, or four different story blocks. They thought they could layer colour and typography over these modules. It didn’t work. They weren’t reflecting critical differences in content, tone, and audience. For example, Curbed and Recode are very different, but the initial design system didn’t reflect those difference.

That brings us back to Donella Meadows:

A system is an interconnected group of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

They weren’t thinking about that last part.

They learned that they couldn’t start with just the individual components or patterns. That’s because they don’t exist in a vacuum. As Alla says:

Start with language, not systems.

They started again, this time thinking about people.

  • What’s the audience goal?
  • Is there a shared audience goal across all brands or are there differences?
  • What’s the editorial workflow?
  • What range of content should this support?

This led to a much better process for creating a design system.

Start with a fast, unified platform. It should load quickly and work across all devices. All patterns should solve a specific problem. But that doesn’t mean creating a one-size-fits-all solution. A design system doesn’t have to stifle creativity …as long as the variants solve a real problem. That means no hypothetical situations.

Identify scenarios. Brad uses a UI inventory for this. Alla talks about a “purpose-directed inventory”. Map core modules to user journeys to see how patterns fit together in the bigger picture. You start to see families of patterns joined together by a shared purpose. Scenarios can help at every level.

The Salesforce design system starts by saying “Know your use-case.” They have examples of different patterns and where to use them. Thinking in user-flows like this matches the way that designers are already thinking.

Shopify’s Polaris system also puts users and user-flows at the centre: the purpose of each pattern is spelled out.

The 18F Design System doesn’t just provide a type system; it provides an explanation of when and where to use which type system.

At Vox, “features” are in-depth pieces. Before having a unified system, each feature looked very custom and were hard to update. They need to unify 18 different systems into one. They started by identifying core workflows. Audience goals were consistent (consume content, find new content), but editorial goals were quite different.

They ended up with quite a few variations of patterns (like page headers, for example), but only if there was a proven content need—no hypothetical situations.

Brand expression for features is all about the details. They started with 18 very different feature templates and ended up with one robust template that works across device types but still allowed for expression.

The “reviews” pieces had a scorecard pattern. Initially there was one unified pattern that they thought would be flexible enough to cover different scenarios. But these scorecards were for very different things: games; restaurants, etc. So people’s needs were very different. In the end, instead of having one scorecard pattern, they created three. Each one highlighted different content according to the user needs.

Homepages were the most challenging to unify. Each one was very distinct. Identifying core workflows took a lot of work.

What’s the value of the homepage? Who is the audience? What are they looking for?

They talked to their users and distilled their findings down into three user goals for homepages:

  • What’s new?
  • What’s important?
  • What’s helpful?

Those needs then translated into patterns. The story feed is there to answer the question “What’s new?”

When it came to variations on the home page, they needed to make sure their design system could stretch enough to allow for distinctly different needs. There’s a newspaper layout, an evergreen layout, a morning recap layout.

Again, Alla’s advice to focus on language was really helpful.

In the process of naming an element, you work out the function as a group and reach agreement.

The last piece was to have a scalable visual design system. Brands need to feel distinct and express an identity. They did this by having foundational elements (type scale, colour system, and white space) with theming applied to them. Thinking of type and colour as systems was key: they need to cascade.

But how do you tell good variation from bad variation? Variation is good if there’s a specific problem that you need a new pattern to solve—there’s a user scenario driving the variation. A bad variation is visual variation on components that do the same thing. Again, the initial design system provided room for “visual fluff and flair” but they were hypothetical. Those variations were removed.

The combination of a scenario-driven system combined with theming allowed for the right balance of consistency and customisation. Previously, the editorial team were hacking together the layouts they wanted, or developers were creating one-off templates. Both of those approaches were very time-consuming. Now, the reporters can focus on telling better stories faster. That was always the goal.

There’s still a lot of work to do. There’s always a pendulum swing between consistency and variation. Sometimes the design system goes too far in one direction or the other and needs to be recalibrated. They want to be able to add more detailed control over typography and spacing.

To wrap up:

  1. Successful design patterns don’t exist in a vacuum.
  2. Successful design systems solve specific problems.
  3. Successful design systems start with content and with people.

See also:

Design ops for design systems

Leading Design was one of the best events I attended last year. To be honest, that surprised me—I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be to me, but it turned out to be the most on-the-nose conference I could’ve wished for.

Seeing as the event was all about design leadership, there was inevitably some talk of design ops. But I noticed that the term was being used in two different ways.

Sometimes a speaker would talk about design ops and mean “operations, specifically for designers.” That means all the usual office practicalities—equipment, furniture, software—that designers might need to do their jobs. For example, one of the speakers recommended having a dedicated design ops person rather than trying to juggle that yourself. That’s good advice, as long as you understand what’s meant by design ops in that context.

There’s another context of use for the phrase “design ops”, and it’s one that we use far more often at Clearleft. It’s related to design systems.

Now, “design system” is itself a term that can be ambiguous. See also “pattern library” and “style guide”. Quite a few people have had a stab at disambiguating those terms, and I think there’s general agreement—a design system is the overall big-picture “thing” that can contain a pattern library, and/or a style guide, and/or much more besides:

None of those great posts attempt to define design ops, and that’s totally fair, because they’re all attempting to define things—style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems—whereas design ops isn’t a thing, it’s a practice. But I do think that design ops follows on nicely from design systems. I think that design ops is the practice of adopting and using a design system.

There are plenty of posts out there about the challenges of getting people to use a design system, and while very few of them use the term design ops, I think that’s what all of them are about:

Clearly design systems and design ops are very closely related: you really can’t have one without the other. What I find interesting is that a lot of the challenges relating to design systems (and pattern libraries, and style guides) might be technical, whereas the challenges of design ops are almost entirely cultural.

I realise that tying design ops directly to design systems is somewhat limiting, and the truth is that design ops can encompass much more. I like Andy’s description:

Design Ops is essentially the practice of reducing operational inefficiencies in the design workflow through process and technological advancements.

Now, in theory, that can encompass any operational stuff—equipment, furniture, software—but in practice, when we’re dealing with design ops, 90% of the time it’s related to a design system. I guess I could use a whole new term (design systems ops?) but I think the term design ops works well …as long as everyone involved is clear on the kind of design ops we’re all talking about.

Pattern Libraries, Performance, and Progressive Web Apps

Ever since its founding in 2005, Clearleft has been laser-focused on user experience design.

But we’ve always maintained a strong front-end development arm. The front-end development work at Clearleft is always in service of design. Over the years we’ve built up a wealth of expertise on using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to make better user experiences.

Recently we’ve been doing a lot of strategic design work—the really in-depth long-term engagements that begin with research and continue through to design consultancy and collaboration. That means we’ve got availability for front-end development work. Whether it’s consultancy or production work you’re looking for, this could be a good opportunity for us to work together.

There are three particular areas of front-end expertise we’re obsessed with…

Pattern Libraries

We caught the design systems bug years ago, way back when Natalie started pioneering pattern libraries as our primary deliverable (or pattern portfolios, as we called them then). This approach has proven effective time and time again. We’ve spent years now refining our workflow and thinking around modular design. Fractal is the natural expression of this obsession. Danielle and Mark have been working flat-out on version 2. They’re very eager to share everything they’ve learned along the way …and help others put together solid pattern libraries.

Danielle Huntrods Mark Perkins

Performance

Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that we’re crazy about performance at Clearleft. Like I said, our focus on user experience, and when it comes to user experience on the web, nothing but nothing is more important than performance. The good news is that the majority of performance fixes can be done on the front end—images, scripts, fonts …it’s remarkable how much a good front-end overhaul can make to the bottom line. That’s what Graham has been obsessing over.

Graham Smith

Progressive Web Apps

Over the years I’ve found myself getting swept up in exciting new technologies on the web. When Clearleft first formed, my head was deep into DOM Scripting and Ajax. Half a decade later it was HTML5. Now it’s service workers. I honestly think it’s a technology that could be as revolutionary as Ajax or HTML5 (maybe I should write a book to that effect).

I’ve been talking about service workers at conferences this year, and I can’t hide my excitement:

There’s endless possibilities of what you can do with this technology. It’s very powerful.

Combine a service worker with a web app manifest and you’ve got yourself a Progressive Web App. It’s not just a great marketing term—it’s an opportunity for the web to truly excel at delivering the kind of user experiences previously only associated with native apps.

Jeremy Keith

I’m very very keen to work with companies and organisations that want to harness the power of service workers and Progressive Web Apps. If that’s you, get in touch.

Whether it’s pattern libraries, performance, or Progressive Web Apps, we’ve got the skills and expertise to share with you.

Patterns Day

Patterns Day is over. It was all I hoped it would be and more.

I’ve got that weird post-conference feeling now, where that all-consuming thing that was ahead of you is now behind you, and you’re not quite sure what to do. Although, comparatively speaking, Patterns Day came together pretty quickly. I announced it less than three months ago. It sold out just over a month later. Now it’s over and done with, it feels like a whirlwind.

The day itself was also somewhat whirlwind-like. It was simultaneously packed to the brim with great talks, and yet over in the blink of an eye. Everyone who attended seemed to have a good time, which makes me very happy indeed. Although, as I said on the day, while it’s nice that everyone came along, I put the line-up together for purely selfish reasons—it was my dream line-up of people I wanted to see speak.

Boy, oh boy, did they deliver the goods! Every talk was great. And I must admit, I was pleased with how I had structured the event. The day started and finished with high-level, almost philosophical talks; the mid section was packed with hands-on nitty-gritty practical examples.

Thanks to sponsorship from Amazon UK, Craig was videoing all the talks. I’ll get them online as soon as I can. But in the meantime, Drew got hold of the audio and made mp3s of each talk. They are all available in handy podcast form for your listening and huffduffing pleasure:

  1. Laura Elizabeth
  2. Ellen de Vries
  3. Sareh Heidari
  4. Rachel Andrew
  5. Alice Bartlett
  6. Jina Anne
  7. Paul Lloyd
  8. Alla Kholmatova

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can play the Patterns Day drinking game while you listen to the talks:

  • Any time someone says “Lego”, take a drink,
  • Any time someone references Chrisopher Alexander, take a drink,
  • Any time someone says that naming things is hard, take a drink,
  • Any time says “atomic design”, take a drink, and
  • Any time says “Bootstrap”, puke the drink back up.

In between the talks, the music was provided courtesy of some Brighton-based artists

Hidde de Vries has written up an account of the day. Stu Robson has also published his notes from each talk. Sarah Drummond wrote down her thoughts on Ev’s blog.

I began the day by predicting that Patterns Day would leave us with more questions than answers …but that they would be the right questions. I think that’s pretty much what happened. Quite a few people compared it to the first Responsive Day Out in tone. I remember a wave of relief flowing across the audience when Sarah opened the show by saying:

I think if we were all to be a little more honest when we talk to each other than we are at the moment, the phrase “winging it” would be something that would come up a lot more often. If you actually speak to people, not very many people have a process for this at the moment. Most of us are kind of winging it.

  • This is hard.
  • No one knows exactly what they’re doing.
  • Nobody has figured this out yet.

Those sentiments were true of responsive design in 2013, and they’re certainly true of design systems in 2017. That’s why I think it’s so important that we share our experiences—good and bad—as we struggle to come to grips with these challenges. That’s why I put Patterns Day together. That’s also why, at the end of the day, I thanked everyone who has ever written about, spoken about, or otherwise shared their experience with design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components. And of course I made sure that everyone gave Anna a great big round of applause for her years of dedicated service—I wish she could’ve been there.

There were a few more “thank you”s at the end of the day, and all of them were heartfelt. Thank you to Felicity and everyone else at the Duke of York’s for the fantastic venue and making sure everything went so smoothly. Thank you to AVT for all the audio/visual wrangling. Thanks to Amazon for sponsoring the video recordings, and thanks to Deliveroo for sponsoring the tea, coffee, pastries, and popcorn (they’re hiring, by the way). Huge thanks to Alison and everyone from Clearleft who helped out on the day—Hana, James, Rowena, Chris, Benjamin, Seb, Jerlyn, and most especially Alis who worked behind the scenes to make everything go so smoothly. Thanks to Kai for providing copies of Offscreen Magazine for the taking. Thanks to Marc and Drew for taking lots of pictures. Thanks to everyone who came to Patterns Day, especially the students and organisers from Codebar Brighton—you are my heroes.

Most of all thank you, thank you, thank you, to the eight fantastic speakers who made Patterns Day so, so great—I love you all.

Laura Ellen Sareh Rachel Alice Jina Paul Alla

Patterns Day speakers

Ticket sales for Patterns Day are going quite, quite briskly. If you’d like to come along, but you don’t yet have a ticket, you might want to remedy that. Especially when you hear about who else is going to be speaking…

Sareh Heidari works at the BBC building websites for a global audience, in as many as twenty different languages. If you want to know about strategies for using CSS at scale, you definitely want to hear this talk. She just stepped off stage at the excellent CSSconf EU in Berlin, and I’m so happy that Sareh’s coming to Brighton!

Patterns Day isn’t the first conference about design systems and pattern libraries on the web. That honour goes to the Clarity conference, organised by the brilliant Jina Anne. I was gutted I couldn’t make it to Clarity last year. By all accounts, it was excellent. When I started to form the vague idea of putting on an event here in the UK, I immediately contacted Jina to make sure she was okay with it—I didn’t want to step on her toes. Not only was she okay with it, but she really wanted to come along to attend. Well, never mind attending, I said, how about speaking?

I couldn’t be happier that Jina agreed to speak. She has had such a huge impact on the world of pattern libraries through her work with the Lightning design system, Clarity, and the Design Systems Slack channel.

The line-up is now complete. Looking at the speakers, I find myself grinning from ear to ear—it’s going to be an honour to introduce each and every one of them.

This is going to be such an excellent day of fun and knowledge. I can’t wait for June 30th!