Websites are primarily seen as functional software, built to fulfill a business objective and to reach quantifiable goals. The field of user experience is obsessed with KPIs, jobs-to-be-done, optimized user flows, and conversion rates. And in quest of ever more efficient processes – and in the spirit of true modernists –, design and development teams try to standardize solutions into reusable templates and components, streamlined pattern libraries, and scalable design systems.
Wednesday, July 1st, 2020
Monday, March 23rd, 2020
- Design systems haven’t “solved” inconsistency. Rather, they’ve shifted how and when it manifests.
- Many design systems have introduced another, deeper issue: a problem of visibility.
Ethan makes the case that it’s time we stopped taking a pattern-led approach to design systems and start taking a process-led approach. I agree. I think there’s often more emphasis on the “design” than the “system”.
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
Another follow-on to my post about design systems and automation. Here, Matthew invokes the spirit of the much-misunderstood Luddite martyrs. It’s good stuff.
Design systems are used by greedy software companies to fatten their bottom line. UI kits replace skilled designers with cheap commoditized labor.
Agile practices pressure teams to deliver more and faster. Scrum underscores soulless feature factories that suck the joy from the craft of software development.
But progress requires more than breaking looms.
Tuesday, February 4th, 2020
Brad weighs in on what I wrote about design systems and automation. He rightly points out that the issue isn’t with any particular tool—and a design system is, after all, a tool—but rather with the culture and processes of the organisation.
Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.
There’s a full-on rant here about the dehumanising effects of what’s called “agile” at scale:
I’ve come to the conclusion that “enterprise web development” is just regular web development, only stripped of any joy or creativity or autonomy. It’s plugging a bunch of smart people into the matrix and forcing them to crank out widgets and move the little cards to the right.
But a design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.
Ethan shares his thoughts on what I wrote about design systems and automation. He offers this test on whether a design system is empowering or disempowering:
Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?
Sunday, July 21st, 2019
A case study from Twitter on the benefits of using a design system:
With component-based design, development becomes an act of composition, rather than constantly reinventing the wheel.
I think that could be boiled down to this:
Component-based design favours composition over invention.
I’m not saying that’s good. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m also not saying it’s neutral.
Tuesday, January 1st, 2019
These are good challenges to think about. Almost all of them are user-focused, and there’s a refreshing focus away from reaching for a library:
It’s tempting to read about these problems with a particular view library or a data fetching library in mind as a solution. But I encourage you to pretend that these libraries don’t exist, and read again from that perspective. How would you approach solving these issues?
Wednesday, July 25th, 2018
I like the questions that the TELUS team ask about any potential components to be added to their design system:
- Is it on brand?
- Is it accessible?
- Has it been tested?
- Can it be reused?
They also have design principles.
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’.
Saturday, December 23rd, 2017
Ubiquity and consistency
I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.
Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:
- Use the HTML
The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.
You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.
This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.
Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:
The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.
But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:
The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.
Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:
The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.
I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.
That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for
select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.
Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:
- Identify core functionality.
- Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
- The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
- Use a
- The user needs to navigate to another page.
- Use an
aelement with an
The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.
Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:
- Start with user needs.
- Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
- Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.
Ubiquity, then consistency.
Wednesday, October 4th, 2017
18F: Digital service delivery | Building a large-scale design system: How we created a design system for the U.S. government
Maya Benari provides an in-depth walkthrough of 18F’s mission to create a consistent design system for many, many different government sites.
When building out a large-scale design system, it can be hard to know where to start. By focusing on the basics, from core styles to coding conventions to design principles, you can create a strong foundation that spreads to different parts of your team.
There’s an interface inventory, then mood boards, then the work starts on typography and colour, then white space, and finally the grid system.
The lessons learned make for good design principles:
- Talk to the people
- Look for duplication of efforts
- Know your values
- Empower your team
- Start small and iterate
- Don’t work in a vacuum
- Reuse and specialize
- Promote your system
- Be flexible
Monday, September 28th, 2009
In search of typographical consistency in government departments.