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How to Build a Design System Dream Team

min read

Mary Lane
Associate Director, UX
Dream Team

If you’re a designer, you’ve probably thought: “We need to make our products more cohesive and improve our customer experience, but it sounds like a lot of work. How do I get it done?”

(And if you’ve taken these first four steps, you’ve probably thought about it pretty recently.)

TL;DR answer:

You don’t get it done.

Wait, what?

It’s true. You don’t do it — at least not alone — but you are a critical part of the team that does.

Creating a design system and rolling it out across an organization is no small feat. Doing it solo is nearly guaranteed to end in heartache, burnout, and failure.

Over nearly 20 years of helping companies develop design systems, we’ve seen the impact firsthand.

Building scalable design systems for our clients and guiding teams in their long-term management has not only helped us elevate customer experiences and improve brand cohesion, but has led to measurable business outcomes. (Example: doubling speed-to-market for Genentech.)

It wouldn’t happen without the right teams in place. Below are five tips to keep in mind — but first, a few disclaimers:

  • Every organization is different; don’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach — Use your judgement and organizational knowledge when following best practices. What has worked for one organization might tank at another. 
  • Get creative with resourcing — Though you may have an internal team, requirements and workload can be real constraints. Cultivate outside consultants, vendors, and agencies that are invested in your long-term goals and hold them accountable for helping you achieve them. Whether it’s executing research, implementing technical infrastructure, or assisting with designs, leveraging outside vendors can be a great way to augment your internal team’s skills. 
  • This is a marathon, not a sprint — If you’re looking for a short-term solution or a quick fix, design system standardization isn’t the path for you. Often times it takes years to fully realize a design system and get it rolled out across an organization. But if you're interested in making meaningful incremental impact and setting a solid foundation, you're on the right track.

Remember when I said not to do this alone? In my last post, I shared a presentation template to help you win buy-in from your leadership team for design standardization. Download it, use it, and get key stakeholders on board to avoid bombing down the line.

Once you have backing, it’s time to start building the dream team that will execute.

1. Treat Your Design System as a Product, not a Project

Standardization is an Evolution

The top myth when creating a design system is that once it’s designed and built, the work is complete.

But a design system is a living guide. It will need to evolve and grow with your team, your customers, and your brand. Though the core styles, colors, and typography may remain consistent, a few key areas that are likely to expand over time, these typically include:

  • Core components — Over time, core components may be added or retired based on the needs and usage of your teams and customers. 
  • Component variations — Integrating additional variants of core components are quite common, building on existing elements as new or adapted functionality is needed. 
  • Styling variables — Alongside new components, their associated styling and styling variables are inevitably added into the design system. 
  • Vision — I’ll talk a little bit later about the importance of crafting a vision for the design system, but know that it too should evolve over time. Work in learnings as your team goes through the design process, as new use cases and needs are uncovered, and as the system starts being rolled out. 

Plan for Change

Managing the change process for components, both from the design side and the technical architecture side, is critical to ensuring that the system adapts as needs evolve.

"Design systems are not a fad or even an untested hypothesis. For design to find the scale necessary to match the rapid growth of technology, component-based design and development is a proven and dependable solution." | Design Systems Handbook

Though internal requests for components or new elements may come in droves, consistently starting the design process with your customer’s needs will help you and your team avoid ‘self design’, and move towards ‘activity-focused’ and ‘user-centered’ design (the two highest design decision styles).

Make a Rollout Plan

Identify a few brands, products, or digital properties that are ripe for an update and work on rolling out your design system there. This will give you, and the rest of the team, live examples of the system in action as well as an opportunity to work out any process kinks and test concepts before a full rollout.   

Get Ready to Evangelize Standardization

It’s likely that day one of a design system launch will draw some detractors and pushback. Though the benefits have the power to improve vast reaches of a company, change can be slow. Be prepared to serve as a spirited advocate throughout the creation and launch to win over your teams. Also, be realistic — design system take time (and continued refinement!) to reach full steam.

2. Create a Multidisciplinary Core Team

Include Diverse Skillsets

Spoiler alert — standardizing your design system takes more than just a team of designers!

The most successful teams leverage talents across a wide range of disciplines. Members often span departments and levels in a company, integrating representatives from a range of backgrounds.

10 Core Team Skills

Each skill serving a unique role in the group:

  • Visual design — Define visual style of components, UI patterns
  • UX — Outline interaction patterns, motion/animation, and experience guidelines 
  • Front-end development — Create modular code and establish code best practices 
  • Accessibility — Ensure your system adheres to industry standards like WCAG
  • Content strategy — Set voice and tone of system, help develop messaging and content to promote the system 
  • Research — Advocate for the end consumer, bringing insights to the team and testing concepts
  • Performance/Reporting — Ensure the system is built to work well across devices, as well as track, measure, and socialize performance analytics
  • Product management — Connect the product to the needs of the customers/users, provide feature/component prioritization guidance 
  • Project management — Serve as main point of contact to delegate work, keep project on schedule, and notify team members of status changes 
  • Leadership — Lead adoption and funding conversations, and gain buy-in across departments

Keep in mind, the design system team should be as lean as possible, and remain execution-oriented. At the end of the day, the team should be centered around those producing the work. Thus, multiple people might be serving in one or more of the roles listed above.

Clarify Roles and Responsibilities

Every design system team member should have a clearly defined role to avoid duplicate efforts, conflict, and confusion. Using a RACI matrix can help to eliminate ambiguities and misunderstandings, and identify additional individuals and/or groups that need to be included to successfully roll out the design system.

A RACI matrix is a simple framework to identify individuals’ roles in the process:

  • R (Responsible) — Who is actually doing the work for each deliverable required to launch your design system?
  • A (Accountable) — Who is accountable for the end results? This individual has the final say when a decision is required.
  • C (Consented) — Who should receive updates, provide feedback, and remain aware of key milestones?
  • I (Informed) — Who needs to be updated when decisions, setbacks, and progress occur?

Keep Your Dream Team Lean, Mean

It’s tempting to continue adding people to the core team, but keeping the group small will maintain focus, reduce costs, ease scheduling, and allow the team to move quicker. Leverage your RACI matrix to identify those who need to be involved in the day-to-day work versus those who need to be informed or consulted.

As mentioned above, you can also keep the team lean by leveraging people whose expertise covers multiple areas. This is typically the approach we see works best. Have a front-end developer who is savvy with accessibility? Have technical lead with operations experience? Or a UX designer that has UI chops? They’d make great additions. Also, don’t forget that to succeed, you’ll need adoption. For that, you also need people on the team to help market and promote the system to others.

3. Establish Your Purpose

Identify and Document Your Project Mission

Design systems come with a host of benefits: increasing operational efficiencies, building a more cohesive customer experience, reducing technical and design debt, building in accessibility, and allowing teams to iterate faster. Identify the core mission of the design system you’re looking to build for your company and the business objectives they’re aligned with. This will make buy-in from groups outside the team easier and keep the core group aligned throughout the process.

Defining your mission statement is the first step. Though there are a plethora of types, the best all answer these three questions:

  • What value do we bring to customers? 
  • What value do we bring to employees? 
  • What value do we bring to the company?

Blackboard’s New School Design System mission statement is a great example:

“The New School design language is the unified system established by Blackboard Design that details the visual and interactive guidelines of how Blackboard software is produced.

As with all design languages, New School lays a foundation to ensure scalable and repeatable dependability in the production of Blackboard software. The New School design language yields a cohesive experience that’s easily understood by our users across all platforms.”

Or, you may breakout your mission into distinct goals, like Dell’s Design Library has listed on their standards guide site, including:

  • Ensured visual consistency — Help us ensure that we stay true to our design principles and brand. Our goal is to create seamless UI and experiences across all Dell digital properties. 
  • Increased efficiency — Get solutions to common UX problems, help with rapid prototyping and detailed UX documentation. 
  • Cohesive customer experiences — With consistent interactions and styles, we can increase every Dell site’s usability while reducing customer confusion.  

There are a host of great design systems out there, each with their own approach to defining and communicating their mission, so figure out what works best for you and your team and run with it.

Whichever path you choose, Jared Spool, Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering, outlines two key aspects to keep in mind:

  • First, the technology is downplayed, keeping the focus on what the user is experiencing. 
  • Second, the team shares the vision frequently, not relying on a single presentation or document to make it permanently sink in.

Keep Goals Specific, Realistic

Trying to create a design system that works for everyone will end up working for no one. Define your audience and be clear about the objectives for your design system. Avoid goals that are too broad (e.g. “improve user experience”), instead identifying specific objectives (e.g. “increase site engagement by 30% in next six months”) and relate them back to business goals.

Staying focused on the pain points your team and customers will help to clarify your goals, identifying ideas and actions that aren’t aligned with your core vision. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate your vision or goals as you go; just remember to clearly communicate what has changed and why.

Define Success

Identify and define what success looks like early. What key metrics will you track to indicate success? What is the “source of truth” for measuring impact? What are the customer’s objectives, the business’s? Finally, how will you know that the system you’ve implemented is working?

Stay Focused on the Big Picture

Focusing too heavily on deliverables (e.g. style guide, component site, etc.) instead of the big picture can leave teams with an underwhelming message to champion outside of design and development teams. Though the deliverables your team will produce are important, they’re not what will move others to adopt and operationalize the standards your team is creating. Tout what problems the design system will solve, and how it’ll make your products, and your brand better first.

4. Identify a Team Lead Early

Clarify Who’s Leading the Charge

Initially, the team lead acts as the main point of contact and the catalyst for the group. Often they come from a design or development background, but they can be from any discipline. They are one of the initial champions of the standardization effort, and start to assemble the rest of the team.

Top Tip — If you’re reading this article, that “lead” might be you. Embrace it.

You could call this person a project manager, product manager, or master scheduler. Whatever their title may be, be clear about who on the team will be taking charge to organize meetings and hold contributors accountable to their progress. Without a singular person “owning” the group’s progress, it can be easy to stall out or start spinning your wheels. Of course, workloads can change and priorities shift, so don’t be afraid to switch this person around as needs arise, but be clear and communicate anytime there is a change to avoid confusion.

Avoid Design by Consensus

Often we fall into a consensus-based structure, where the “group” decides. Ultimately this, more often than not, leads to stagnation, groupthink, and poor decisions. Avoid falling into the “design by committee” trap by empowering the team to make decisions, setting aside time outside of meetings for individuals to work through problems, leaning on the expertise of subject matter experts or outside partners.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in Process

Through process is helpful, determine what level of detail is necessary, and what areas you can streamline. For internal initiatives, leverage the skills of the team to parallel path work and minimize the approvals and documentation you create. Just as you’re keeping the core team lean, keeping the process lean as well will help you make progress and and avoid racking up huge costs in all-hands meetings.

5. Work Well with Others

Collaboration is Key

Ultimately, the core to a successful design system is collaboration. It might seem obvious, but it’s a surprisingly overlooked element.

As designers, we inherently integrate collaboration into our process, but the type of collaboration required to standardize design goes beyond the visual design team. The team must integrate the needs from a range of stakeholders on the requirements, but also on the design system’s adoption. Though the core team is responsible for steering the definition and implementation of the design system, strong teams collaborate and pull in individuals and teams across organizations to get input, insights, and create advocates.

Stay Connected to Other Teams  

Silos! Don’t create another one. Avoid isolating the core team from the rest of the organization, or from your customers. Embrace testing, concept validation, and analysis to ensure concepts will meet the goals of your teams and your audience. If needed, leverage partners or consultants to perform audience research or user testing to jump start ideas and provide a fresh perspective.

Make Feedback Loops a Priority

Internally, avoid isolating your team from new ideas and issues by integrating a variety of feedback methods to integrate change requests into your workflow. This could take the form of a submission/request process via Google Forms, regular review meetings with other team leads, or one-on-one conversations. Make it clear how other teams or individuals can provide input so that the system stays in sync with the needs of the organization, and continues to gain adoption.  

Externally, keep your team connected to your customers and users of the products, services, and applications you’re creating the building blocks for. Use this connection to innovate and jumpstart the design system.

All in All

Unifying a design system team is not a simple task, but the benefits your team, your company, and your customers can reap are immense. Focus on the specific objectives that the system is aimed at, not just a final deliverable like a style guide to unite teams and drive adoption.

Interested in learning more? There are a bunch of great resources available, and if you’re looking for some good places to get started check out or DesignBetter.Co’s Design System Handbook. Have questions about how you can roll out a design system at your org? I’d love continue the conversation. Find me on Twitter @mklanedesigns.