Case Study: Getting a Design System Unstuck

02-23-22 Taheerah Barney

Sparkbox started a partnership with an AI-powered cloud communication platform to identify the short- and long-term risks to their design system and suggest a strategy to position the design system for future success.

In October 2021, Sparkbox met with an AI-powered cloud communication platform that facilitates team collaborations. Our main goal was to identify the short- and long-term risks to their design system and construct a strategy to position it for present and future success. We gathered research about their present and future needs, surveyed their design system users, interviewed key stakeholders, and workshopped their key challenges with the design system team.

What We Learned

Sparkbox was initially brought into this engagement through the VP of design, who was new to the company herself. Through this contact, we held preliminary meetings with a wider set of stakeholders, ranging from the chief product officer to designers. It quickly became clear that everyone had their own idea of what a design system was. Designers were more likely to view the system as a Figma file. Developers saw it as a GitHub repo. This discipline bias skews each group’s ability to understand and value the system’s full scope.

Employees also expressed a lack of steady support from their bosses for the design system. If management couldn’t reach a consensus about why they needed a system, employees wouldn’t know either. Sparkbox had to chart a path to convert skeptical leaders into supporters so their staff would have confidence in the system.

Like many design system teams, our client was focused on making a better system by adding functionality and making it more robust. Sparkbox found that the client’s design system team swung back and forth between supporting existing subscribers’ needs, expanding the system’s adoption by educating potential subscribers, and evolving the system to serve even more subscribers in the future.

It’s pretty common for design system teams to seesaw between Stages 2 and 3 of the Maturity Model. It is a Catch-22: if you spend all of your time recruiting new users, you can’t build the infrastructure to support your existing supporters’ needs.

Our discovery sessions identified our main priority: advising our client on how they could turn their design system into a well-oiled machine to then scale it for future growth.

A successful design system relies on everyone convening to achieve a shared goal. Misunderstandings abound when different personalities and disciplines interact, so an abundance of empathy is vital for unifying a cross-discipline team around a strategy.

We wanted to bring client team members up to speed and share a common vocabulary and outlook to reference the design system using a shared language. We recommended that a small cross-discipline team create a central definition that emphasizes collaboration and collective responsibility across disciplines for a healthy, successful system and culture.

Remember the client’s focus on increasing their system’s functionality? Well, we went the opposite direction by suggesting they scale back the system. This allows them to concentrate on performing and excelling at fewer tasks, which helps the system achieve consistency and flexibility across subscriber products.

Over the years, we’ve seen many teams beef up their design systems because they’re convinced size is the key to success. The truth is being selective about the features you add to your system outweighs its size.

If a design system is going to be an asset to the client, it must help them scale for future growth. Sparkbox offered some guidance on how they could support existing subscribers, expand the design system’s adoption, continue its evolution, and escape Maturity Model limbo. We recommended they build a process into their system to encourage transparency and prevent them from ever getting stuck again.

This plan of action would create design system documentation and training that would be part of their new employee onboarding, interview and survey existing system users to gather ongoing feedback, and send out newsletters and conduct demos around updates to encourage employees to frequently use the design system.

Now that there was a baseline understanding of their design system’s purpose and how to move it forward, it was time to figure out how to convert skeptical leaders into advocates. Sparkbox workshopped the idea of identifying the leaders who were the least enthused about the system and explaining its benefits around each person’s individual needs and concerns to win them over with the core team. The team members are internally working to persuade disbelieving leaders to encourage consistent messaging from the top and reinforce the design system’s importance to employees.

“We’ve learned that, in order to build lasting advocacy from leadership, you have to position the system as a solution to a specific leader’s set of problems. Lucky for us, design systems solve so many problems that it’s only a matter of telling the right story to the right person—reframing the benefits in a way that motivates them to action.” – Ben Callahan, President of Sparkbox.

Takeaways from Our Client Collaboration

The client has taken the first steps in their journey to maintain and improve their design system. Our engagement left them with a few critical takeaways:

  • Company-wide adoption of the system begins with a shared definition of a design system and its goals.
  • A successful design system requires cross-discipline team members to empathize with one another and collectively support the system.
  • Transparency earns trust because it continually keeps employees in the loop about the design system.

This project reminded Sparkbox that “people problems” like a lack of communication and empathy are often at the root of a client’s design system challenges.



Do you work on an internal design system? Do you want to know where your design system is within the Maturity Model? Do you need help getting your system unstuck? Take our Design System Maturity Model Assessment today and find out what stage your design system is and how to move it forward.

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