I often use the word quality when referring to apps, products and services I hold in a high regard but another word that often comes up in this context is craft. Craft, as in something that is handcrafted where something someone spent a lot of time on and maybe even embedded their own personal touches and personality in it. Often something handcrafted feels more premium.
A beautiful meditation on Christopher Alexander by Claire L. Evans.
Y’know, I started reading this great piece by Claire L. Evans thinking about its connections to systems thinking, but I ended up thinking more about prototyping. And microbes.
Modern computing is far too rigid. Applications can only function in preset ways determined by some far away team. Software is trapped in hermetically sealed silos and is rewritten many times over rather than recomposed.
This community catalogs and experiments with malleable software and systems that reset the balance of power via several essential principles…
I like this approach to offering a design system. It seems less prescriptive than many:
Designed not as a rule set, but rather a toolbox, the Data Design Language includes a chart library, design guidelines, colour and typographic style specifications with usability guidance for internationalization (i18n) and accessibility (a11y), all reflecting our data design principles.
This is a great analysis by Amy of the conflicting priorities tugging at design systems.
No matter how hard we work to foster these socialist ideals, like community, collaboration, and contribution, it feels as though we’re always being dragged to a default culture of individualism.
Software quality is more the result of a system designed to produce quality, and not so much the result of individual performance. That is: a group of mediocre programmers working with a structure designed to produce quality will produce better software than a group of fantastic programmers working in a system designed with other goals.
This talks about development, but I believe it applies equally—if not more—to design.
And this is very insightful:
Instead of spending tons of time and effort on hiring because you believe that you can “only hire the best”, direct some of that effort towards building a system that produces great results out of a wider spectrum of individual performance.
A stylesheet for when you’re nostalgic for the old Mac OS.
I believe that we haven’t figured out when and how to give a developer access to an abstraction or how to evaluate when an abstraction is worth using. Abstractions are usually designed for a set of specific use-cases. The problems, however, start when a developer wants to do something that the abstraction did not anticipate.
Smart thoughts from Surma on the design of libraries, frameworks, and other abstractions:
Abstractions that take work off of developers are valuable! Of course, they are. The problems only occur when a developer feels chained to the abstractions in a situation where they’d rather do something differently. The important part is to not force patterns onto them.
This really resonated with parts of my recent talk at CSS Day when I was talking about Sass and jQuery:
If you care about DX and the adoption of your abstraction, it is much more beneficial to let developers use as much of their existing skills as possible and introduce new concepts one at a time.
Even when each new layer of complexity starts to bring zero or even negative returns on investment, people continue trying to do what worked in the past. At some point, the morass they’ve built becomes so dysfunctional and unwieldy that the only solution is collapse: i.e., a rapid decrease in complexity, usually by abolishing the old system and starting from scratch.
Jim shares his thoughts on my recent post about declarative design systems. He picks up on the way I described a declarative design systems as “a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components”:
I like this definition of a design system: a set of boundaries. It’s about saying “don’t go there” rather than “you can only go here”. This embraces the idea of constraints as the mother of invention: it opens the door to creativity while keeping things bounded.
I completely agree with Dan that when it comes to design systems, completeness is an over-rated—and even counter-productive—goal:
Some organizations seem to hold up the ideal that, once a design system exists, everything in an interface can and should be built with it. Not only is that an unrealistic goal for most enterprises, but it can often be a toxic mindset that anything less than 100% coverage is misuse of a design system at best or utter failure at worst.
Just like jQuery dominated the front end yesterday, React dominates it today. There will be something new that dominates it tomorrow. Your design system team will continue doing the same work and incurring more and more costs to keep up with framework churn. And let’s not forget the cost of updating tomorrow’s legacy apps, who are consumers of your soon to be legacy design system.
No matter how fancy your Figma file is or how beautiful and lovingly well organized that Storybook documentation is; the front-end is always your source of truth. You can hate it as much as you like—all those weird buttons, variables, inaccessible form inputs—but that right there is your design system.
Some tough design system love from Robin.
Here’s my advice: take all that aspirational stuff out of your Figma design system file. Put it somewhere else. Your Figma docs should be a mirror of the front-end (because that’s really the source of truth).
This forthcoming podcast about design engineering sounds like my cup of tea!
Despite their name, most design systems aren’t all that much like systems. Granted, they are designed according to a system, and there’s a logical consistency to how their components and tokens are defined, but really, most design systems work like a dictionary: look up a component, get the instructions for using that component.
Mathew goes on to advocate moving towards a more function-centred approach to systematic design. It makes a lot of sense.
By the way, this isn’t directly related—other than metaphor being used—but I wrote about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems a while back.
I remember Lara telling me a great quote from the Clarity conference a few years back: “A design system needs to be correct before it’s complete.” In other words, it’s better to have one realistic component that’s actually in production than to have a pattern library full of beautiful but unimplemented components. I feel like Robin is getting at much the same point here, but he frames it in terms of correctness and usefulness:
If we want to be correct, okay, let’s have components of everything and an enormous Figma library of stuff we need to maintain. But if we want to be useful to designers who want to get an understanding of the system, let’s be brief.
Speed for the sake of speed means nothing. If our design systems don’t ultimately lead to better quality experiences, we’re doing it wrong.
When we rush to release one-size-fits-all components, without doing the work to understand different contexts before curating and consolidating solutions, we sacrifice quality at the hands of speed.
The irony? In the long run, this will slow us down. We end up having to undo the work we’ve done to fix the problems we’ve created.
Ultimately, when we prioritise speed over quality, we end up with neither.
Jason applies my favourite design principle to design systems.
User needs come before the needs of component consumers, which come before the needs of component developers, which come before the needs of the design system team, which come before theoretical purity.
Also: how frickin’ cool is it that the Cloud Four office has the priority of constituencies emblazoned on the wall!