UXpin interviewed my friend and collaborator Dan Mall to tap his giant brain for insights about building design systems. The 47:15 interview is full of gems, and you should watch or read the whole thing. Meanwhile, here are a few highlights:
I don’t think that a design system should remove design from your organization. A lot of clients think like, “Oh, if we had a design system, we don’t need to design anymore, right? ‘Cause all the decisions would be made.” And I think that I’ve never seen that actually happen. Design systems should just help you design better. So you’re still gonna have to go through the process of design, but a design system should be a good tool in your arsenal for you to be able to design better. And eliminate some of the useless decisions that you might have to make otherwise.
I love this. Design systems are at their best when they simply gather the best practices of the organization—the settled solutions. The most effective design systems are simply containers of institutional knowledge: “this is what good design looks like in our company.” Instead of building (and rebuilding and rebuilding) the same pattern over and over again, designers and developers Instead of designing a card pattern for the 15th time, it’s already done. Product teams can put their time and smarts into solving new problems. Put another way: the most exciting design systems are boring.
Dan also talks about the importance of making the system fit the workflow of the people who use it. In our projects together, we’ve found that deep user research is required to get it right:
I’ve worked with organizations that the design systems are for purely developers. That’s it. It’s not for designers. And then in other organizations, a design system has to work equally well for designers and developers. And so just those two examples, those two design systems have to be drastically different from each other ’cause they need to support different use cases and different people.
If that kind of user-centered research sounds like product work, that’s because it is:
It is a product and you have to treat it like a product. It grows like a product, it gets used like a product. And for people to think like, “Yeah we’ll just create it once and then it’ll sit there.” They’re not realizing the value of it and they may not actually get value from it if they’re not treating it like a thing that also needs to grow in time and adapt over time. … The reason that the design system is so hard to get off the ground is because it requires organizational change. It requires people to have different mindsets about how they’re going to work.