Sculpting a community of practice around Design Systems

Role: Content designer, design consultant

Contributors: Andrew Godfrey, Drew Bridewell, Neelum Etheridge

2018-2019

screenshots from different parts of the HackerRank product

Over the past several years, my career has shifted from designing digital products to designing the ecosystems that support the discovery, design, development, and delivery of those products to market. What I’ve discovered is the way the business designs products is reflected in the experience of the using the products themselves.

Intent

What combination of content and interactive exercises will help teams learn to view their design systems as a product, not just a project? How can we help them take a service-design approach to building and scaling it within their own organizational cultures?

Impact

The content I designed has been delivered across several formats to hundreds of designers and their teams. It’s modular format allows for it to be broken down to meet the needs of the audience. Feedback indicates these activities have helped center the conversation around design systems on culture and common practice, leading to more successful and sustainable design system products.

  • “The workshop was phenomenal, with relevant content well delivered and interspersed with memorable activities”
  • “The material, hands-on exercises, and methodologies are all fantastic resources I can apply immediately to my role”

My process

After several consultations and conversations with design teams, I noticed a pattern: teams were focusing on what went into their design system (components, guidelines, styles) but were being tripped up by the culture around it.

There are plenty of examples of workshops and activities intended to help design systems teams take inventory of their library and converge around common components and styles. What was missing was an intentional way to design the system of design that the design system emerged from.

I identified these topics to focus on:

  1. Actionable Principles
  2. Engaged Stakeholders
  3. Purposeful Governance
  4. Common Language
  5. Contextual Communication

I prototyped an exercise designed to reverse the way design system teams develop an initial governance model. Too often, I heard teams express, “we can’t build a design system yet because we don’t have a core design systems team.”

This is a flawed assumption. Many design systems start through federated or insurgent work (even in my own experience). Instead of focusing on WHO would accomplish the work, I wanted to encourage teams to instead think about WHAT needed to be done and work backwards to consider how they might structure a governance and process model around that given existing resources.

The exercise consisted of three parts. First, teams would brainstorm all of the activities that are associated with the design system. Second, they would map those against a hypothetical model of primary, secondary, and tertiary stakeholders. Finally, teams would horizontally map out a process of ownership and handoff by which the different groups would accomplish this work.

Result: My prototype was successful at creating purposeful conversations that drove change. Customers reported that the exercise changed the way they thought about implementing design systems at their companies. One customer even noted that this influenced the way they though about professional development as well, since this model opened up ways for more people to be involved in the development and management of a design system, even if they didn't have headcount for a large centralized team.

After proving the need and efficacy of these exercises, I developed them into a series of modules that could be delivered in workshop form. (For this, I partnered with members of my team at InVision who have themselves delivered this content and helped me improve it)

The goal for this was to do more than just create a series of workshops. To maximize impact, I wanted to ensure this could become a practice that anyone interfacing with our customers could adopt. To accomplish this, I trained several members of our customer success team to deliver the content and provide feedback that would allow us to continue fine tuning and expanding it to meet customer needs.

Finally, I’ve captured the outcome of this in a WIP Workbook that is intended to enable a broader community of practice outside of our customer base.

Conclusion

Design systems fascinate me because they act as a canary in a coal mine to point out culture issues that need design as well. When implemented effectively, design systems manage to have an emergent impact of the systems of design and development themselves. My hope is this catalyzes deeper discovery into how high-impact design teams will evolve in the future.