- Know where you stand before starting the journey
- Make sure everyone is speaking the same language
- Integrate the right tools into your team’s workflow
Wednesday, June 20th, 2018
Friday, June 15th, 2018
Do we have too many design systems?
Spoiler: the answer is “no”. There. Saved you a click.
(Not really; you should definitely click.)
Tuesday, June 5th, 2018
The steps that the Canva team took to turbocharge their design ops.
I’ll talk about why creating a shared design system has boosted our organizational productivity—and how you can help your teams improve product quality while reducing your company’s ‘design debt’.
Monday, June 4th, 2018
I really like the way that this pattern library includes research insights to provide justification for design decisions.
Andy Bell is documenting is journey of getting to grips with web components. I think it’s so valuable to share like this as you’re learning, instead of waiting until you’ve learned it all—the fresh perspective is so useful!
Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
I’ve come to believe that the goal of any good framework should be to make itself unnecessary.
The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.
That makes total sense, especially if your code is a polyfill—those solutions are temporary by design. Autoprefixer is another good example of a piece of code that becomes less and less necessary over time.
But I think it’s equally true of any successful framework or library. If the framework becomes popular enough, it will inevitably end up influencing the standards process, thereby becoming dispensible.
querySelector without jQuery. The library proved the need for the feature. The same is true for a whole load of DOM scripting features.
The same process is almost certain to occur with React—it’s a good bet there will be a standardised equivalent to the virtual DOM at some point.
When Google first unveiled AMP, its intentions weren’t clear to me. I hoped that it existed purely to make itself redundant:
As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.
Alas, as time has passed, that hope shows no signs of being fulfilled. If anything, I’ve noticed publishers using the existence of their AMP pages as a justification for just letting their “regular” pages put on weight.
Worse yet, the messaging from Google around AMP has shifted. Instead of pitching it as a format for creating parallel versions of your web pages, they’re now also extolling the virtues of having your AMP pages be the only version you publish:
In fact, AMP’s evolution has made it a viable solution to build entire websites.
On an episode of the Dev Mode podcast a while back, AMP was a hotly-debated topic. But even those defending AMP were doing so on the understanding that it was more a proof-of-concept than a long-term solution (and also that AMP is just for news stories—something else that Google are keen to change).
But now it’s clear that the Google AMP Project is being marketed more like a framework for the future: a collection of web components that prioritise performance …which is kind of odd, because that’s also what Google’s Polymer project is. The difference being that pages made with Polymer don’t get preferential treatment in Google’s search results. I can’t help but wonder how the Polymer team feels about AMP’s gradual pivot onto their territory.
If the AMP project existed in order to create a web where AMP was no longer needed, I think I could get behind it. But the more it’s positioned as the only viable solution to solving performance, the more uncomfortable I am with it.
Which, by the way, brings me to one of the most pernicious ideas around Google AMP—positioning anyone opposed to it as not caring about web performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s precisely because performance on the web is so important that it deserves a long-term solution, co-created by all of us: not some commandents delivered to us from on-high by one organisation, enforced by preferential treatment by that organisation’s monopoly in search.
It’s the classic logical fallacy:
- Performance! Something must be done!
- AMP is something.
- Now something has been done.
By marketing itself as the only viable solution to the web performance problem, I think the AMP project is doing itself a great disservice. If it positioned itself as an example to be emulated, I would welcome it.
I wish that AMP were being marketed more like a temporary polyfill. And as with any polyfill, I look forward to the day when AMP is no longer necesssary.
I want AMP to become extinct. I genuinely think that the Google AMP team should share that wish.
Tuesday, May 29th, 2018
Rafaela Ferro has written a good case study on Ev’s blog of using CSS grid to build some practical image-based responsive components.
Saturday, May 26th, 2018
No longer focused on recreating the wheel (or icon), designers can turn their attention to different types of challenges.
The bet to make is that we’re going to see more use of specialized languages. And HTML and CSS are the grandaddy specialized languages that have enough social consensus and capital investment to be the seeds of the next generation.
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018
Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018
Monday, May 7th, 2018
Ethan emphasises the importance of making a shared language the heart of any design system. I heartily agree!
This isn’t new thinking, mind: folks like Alla Kholmatova and Charlotte Jackson have been talking about this for ages. (And in doing so, they’ve massively influenced how I think about modular, pattern-driven design.)
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
- the problem being solved;
- when to use this pattern;
- 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?
Monday, April 2nd, 2018
Scenario-Driven Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz
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:
- Successful design patterns don’t exist in a vacuum.
- Successful design systems solve specific problems.
- Successful design systems start with content and with people.
Tuesday, March 27th, 2018
The canonical example in just about every pattern library is documenting button variations. Here, Tyler shows how even this seemingly simple pattern takes a lot of thought.
Wednesday, March 21st, 2018
Part one of a deep dive by Nathan into structuring design system documentation, published on Ev’s blog.
Saturday, March 10th, 2018
Monday, March 5th, 2018
Sunday, March 4th, 2018
I like the idea of “design bugs”:
Every two weeks or so, a group of designers would get together for a couple of hours to fix what we called “design bugs.” These were things that didn’t hinder functionality and wouldn’t have been filed as an engineering bug, but were places where we were using an old component, an existing one incorrectly, or a one-off alteration.