A Framework for Maturing a Design System

01-11-23 Ben Callahan

The truth is that design systems are powered by people. Without stakeholders and subscribers behind it, your system is bound to die on the vine. That’s why the three E’s—education, engagement, and evolution—are so important when it comes to maturing your design system.

Want to mature a design system in a healthy way? Focus on these three categories: education, engagement, and evolution. It doesn’t matter what stage of The Design System Maturity Model your system is at currently, these three areas will serve as an anchor point for your thinking.

It’s important to note (right up front) that each stage of maturity has unique tasks associated with each category. However, just because you’ve reached a new stage of maturity, it doesn’t mean that you stop doing the tasks from the previous stage. This means that for each stage you get to, your tasks get layered on top of the ones from the previous stage. This is the nature of maintaining a successful design system.

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The Three E’s

Again, the three areas of focus are:

  • Education
  • Engagement
  • Evolution
a continuous cycle of education, engagement, and evolution

We call these “The Three E’s,” which hopefully makes them “E”asy to remember… Now let’s look at what each of these means.

Education

Part of the work of creating a healthy design system is to make sure you are always educating those around you about what a design system is, especially in the context of your organization. Despite the fact that many people in the industry have been thinking and working on more systematic approaches to interface design and development for years, there is still a lot of confusion about the phrase “design system.” Let’s be honest, nobody else is going to teach your team what, why, and how a design system should be built and used. That is part of your job. This area of focus calls for activities that are primarily one-way interactions. You will spend time spreading the word about design systems, casting a vision, and offering a consistent definition of systems for your organization.

Engagement

Where education is primarily one-way, engagement is interactive. The hard truth about design system work is that it’s almost impossible to do on your own. Putting a design system in place inside your organization will require almost everyone to change how they work. I have yet to see a successful system where the design system team does not actively engage with stakeholders, subscribers, potential subscribers, and leadership. It boils down to the idea that people need to feel like part of the process in order to willingly change their process. It’s your job to include them—as many as you can—in the work of defining and even building the system.

Engagement can include activities as simple as surveying or interviewing subscribers to things as complex as hosting those subscribers on your team for a short period of time. Through this kind of relationship, you will learn what they value, see their struggles, and begin to understand the unique ways their team operates in the context of your organization as a whole. This will, ultimately, create a healthier system that your potential subscribers can’t imagine being without.

Evolution

Evolution means you will always iterate on the system itself. Like any other product, the work you put into a design system is never done. Showing that the system is supported, healthy, and evolving in ways that your subscribers need will build the trust necessary for your system to stick. Also, we all know that technology moves fast, so evolving the system means always being in a good position—technically speaking—to better support those who use it.

It’s Additive

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just going through the motions of the three E’s once. You can never stop educating, engaging, and evolving. You’re a lot like a shark in that way. You also can’t stop doing the tasks from the previous stages, even though there are new tasks for each stage of the maturity model. This means the educational tasks you did in stage one are things you’ll still be doing in stage two, alongside the new stage two educational tasks. The job, unfortunately, only gets more complex.

The Three E’s are a continuous cycle that grows with each new maturity stage your design system is in.

I tend to think of this as a cycle of education, engagement, and evolution. Make sure you’re always working in these three areas and at some point, you’ll realize you’ve made it to the next stage.

One of the biggest areas of weakness we see in design systems that are struggling is that they are very focused on one or two of these areas. It is only by doing all of these things—in ever-growing layers of tasks—can you mature in a healthy and sustainable way.

Next Steps

The easiest way to put this into practice today is to take one card or task or story from your backlog and split it into three: one for education, one for engagement, and one for evolution. It’s likely that most of the things you have logged will fall in the evolution category. If that’s the case, consider how your organization needs to be educated about that work. Also, think through how you can engage with future users of that work to shape it in a way that will be most valuable and desirable for those users.

Remember, two-thirds of the work here is not designing, testing, or building anything. This is the hard truth about design systems—they are largely about the people, not about the tools or technologies. The Three E’s provide a succinct framework for keeping this truth top of mind.

What’s next for your design system?

Get feedback on where your design systems is now and suggestions that will help your design system further benefit your whole organization with the Maturity Model Assessment.

Take the Assessment

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