In October 2021, we were excited to connect with a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 retailer to talk about their design system and help them map out a roadmap to success.
Starting Over with a Clean Slate
We knew going into this engagement that the client created a design system several years ago. But then the COVID-19 pandemic radically changed their industry in March 2020, and management dissolved the design system team—inadvertently scrapping the system. Team members were reassigned to different departments to help brainstorm strategies for navigating the new, unpredictable environment.
Eighteen months later, the design system was too out of sync and outdated to salvage. While the system was unstaffed, product designers added new features and functionality to the company’s web properties.
Unfortunately, these updates weren’t incorporated back into the design system, so there was no straightforward point of reference or reusable code. Anyone wishing to avoid rework and maintain consistency had to either possess deep knowledge about what had been created across the organization or reverse engineer the company’s web properties.
Ultimately, the client chose to start over with a new system. They sought out Sparkbox for guidance on building a new system that would better suit their needs.
Discovery and Investigation
To make precise recommendations about moving forward with a new system, Sparkbox had to understand the company’s brand and culture, their vision for the new design system, the problems they were trying to solve, and how they would measure success. Without dwelling too much on the past, we also wanted to clarify why the previous system had failed to inspire loyalty and commitment.
The best way to learn is to ask! We started a discovery process by holding interviews with various stakeholders ranging from the Product & Corporate Strategy Vice President to engineers to uncover vital information about the client’s immediate and future goals for their system. We were also able to workshop challenges and opportunities with the product, design, and development teams.
One of the benefits of this discovery process was for Sparkbox to gather information and deepen understanding, but also to build an environment of open communication and trust.
Key Challenges for the Client Team
After we analyzed our research, we uncovered the following client challenges.
No Shared Understanding
As we mentioned, the client is no stranger to design systems. But design systems can have different meanings to many people—even within the same company. Our discovery process clearly showed us that building a common understanding within this organization around a design system was a priority. Some designers believed the design system was a “creativity killer” that removed flexibility and inspiration from their process. Other team members viewed design system best practices more as “suggestions” than actual processes, undermining the system’s intent.
We knew if the client didn’t reach a consensus on what a design system was and what it could do, they would struggle to show existing users why the system was valuable and motivate potential subscribers to get on board.
A Self-Governing Culture
Our client has a scrappy, autonomous culture with minimal oversight because the leaders believe hierarchy stops employees from quickly resolving issues. Their teams of savvy professionals are experts at putting out immediate fires and seeking innovative solutions, and this mindset is partially responsible for their immense success.
Cooperation is at the heart of every successful design system and requires team members to collaborate across disciplines. It also requires teams to unite around a larger goal—especially when appealing to potential and existing subscribers. We knew we would need to help our client strike a balance between the autonomy they so valued and the need to find unity in parts of their interface design process.
The Impact of Rapid Growth
Despite all the changes necessitated by the pandemic, this client saw rapid growth between 2020 and 2022. But that same growth resulted in a hiring spike that expanded the number of people handling various pages and workflows, which exposed existing fault lines in the experience that the client provided their customers. For example, the client’s teams were divided by pages and flows even though a customer’s journey spans numerous touchpoints during one website visit. Each team focused on achieving the organization’s overall success through their KPIs.
In order to have a successful design system, we knew we would have to help build coordination between many different teams to create cohesive experiences for their customers.
After examining our findings, we made the following recommendations.
Agree on What a Design System Is and What It’s Made Of
We knew that one of the most important things the client could do was build agreement around a design system. A design system is not just about a shared set of patterns or standards. A design system is a multi-layered ecosystem spanning from core brand elements to complex components. The more a team understands these layers, the more likely they are to build and use the system in a consistent, collaborative way. But before you can understand what goes into a design system, you have to know what a design system is.
We recommended that the client create a small cross-disciplinary team to establish a shared definition of the design system and how it would work for the client.
Don’t Skimp on the Foundation
Many years of work with design systems have taught us that a successful system has to meaningfully tie organizational brand standards with the digital interfaces it’s used to create. The Foundational layer is the system’s closest connection to the brand, with elements like design principles, point of view, voice, tone, brand color, spacing, etc. Starting with brand and building toward components is critical for any system, including this one.
We encouraged our client to define their brand’s design values by ensuring their brand strategy, processes, and documentation were accurate and in place so team members could access this information at any time.
Higher Staffing Levels for The Design System Team
A challenge many teams face is too few designers and developers to support an entire organization’s design system needs. Our client’s situation was no different. While mighty, they were small in number—just a handful of people. Their funding was such that they would need to hire gradually instead of building the team all at once.
So we started with the new vision for the design system and brainstormed the roles that would make that vision a reality—from designers and developers to usability professionals and documentation writers. Based on this needs assessment and the timeline for the new system, we suggested a hiring cadence for the design system team that would scale alongside the product.
Culture Is Critical
The creation of a design system is a cross-disciplinary effort that is most effective with buy-in from many different teams and specialties. This client team had some natural skepticism about the new design system’s longevity after the last one failed to thrive. They were also concerned about leadership buy-in over time. To be successful with a new design system, team members need to be reassured that the system will not be allowed to grow outdated. They need education on how to use and contribute to the system so that it adapts to changing demands of the organization. And finally, they need to believe that leaders are invested in its progress.
We recommended a two-pronged approach that included managers creating a unified vision for the design system and all team members making a concerted effort to help new subscribers feel welcome and existing subscribers feel supported.
One of the things that’s exciting about this client is that despite a false start with their first design system, they still recognize the potential for a design system to support a dynamic, growing company. We’re excited about helping this client to move forward to realize the full potential that this system has in store.
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