3 Forces That Will Stabilize Your Design System

02-02-22 Sparkbox

You may know that a design system is a living product with an ever-shifting set of goals and users. Our years of research and experience have identified three forces that act as stabilizers to build a long-lasting design system.

Sean Rhodes and Albert Dang define a design system as “…a living ecosystem of assets, tools, people, and processes that work together to create harmony across products and platforms, raise confidence and familiarity with users, and save time and money for your organization.”

This kind of complex product requires a system of interdependent components that work in harmony with one another. And like any ecosystem, an imbalance in one area can upend this delicate symbiosis.

One of the challenges of working on a design system is that they’re never “complete.” A design system is a living product with an ever-shifting set of goals and users. It is susceptible to changes that can diminish its effectiveness—such as market fluctuations, new competitors, product changes, or rapid technological shifts—and measuring its success is sometimes challenging. But experience has shown us that there are certain factors that help enable its stability and success.

Design System Stabilizers

Design system stabilizers aren’t boxes to be checked or components to be built. Rather, they are measures of trust and respect for the system that are earned through the work you do with your team.

Our annual Design Systems Survey, along with many in-depth conversations with design system teams, have given us insight into what it takes to maintain and evolve a successful system over time. From these various conversations, three primary design system stabilizers stood out:

  • Authority
  • Value
  • Tradition
Three-Circle Venn Diagram showing the intersection of authority, value, and tradition as a stable design system.

Authority

A design system has stable authority when organizational leaders routinely make decisions that support the system, design system team members, and the goals of the design system’s team.

Design systems with authority are likely to have reliable budgets and dedicated teams since the organization is willing to commit the time and resources they need to continually evolve the system. Having high-level support also positively impacts adoption by new teams and contributors: if leaders support it, everyone else is more likely to get on board.

In some cases, having stable authority goes hand-in-hand with a “top-down” origin story for a design system. If leadership was initially involved with green lighting the system, it may be easier to maintain open lines of communication between the design system team and those company leaders. However, even a design system with a “grassroots” origin story can earn its way to the authority stabilizer. It’s a good idea for system teams to regularly provide updates (and proof points) to help build support with those who might need a bit of extra education.

Value

Authority may reflect top-level support for a design system, but there are additional day-to-day factors that should be considered. For example, if the design system isn’t making users’ daily lives better, they probably won’t use the system. That’s where the value stabilizer comes in.

In the early phases of design system evolution, the creators typically make a lot of promises about the benefits of a design system: The system will improve consistency. The system will save our team from endless rework. The system will ensure accessibility. The system will save you from having to make every decision on the fly. The system will make your life easier. And most importantly, the system will provide quantifiable business results.

When the design system has evolved to where it is keeping those promises, the value stabilizer exists. As team members recognize the system’s value, they’re more willing to engage with the product and are eager to incorporate it into their daily routines, even if using it requires some processes changes.

A design system team can build value stability by setting measures of success and proactively sharing the results with a diverse community. The more you can spread an understanding of the benefits of the system, the more likely you’ll be to gain adopters and participation. A steady cycle of education, engagement, and evolution maintains the relevance of your design system, and a relevant product translates to a stable product.

Tradition

Finally, we arrive at the tradition stabilizer. Tradition is when the design system has become “the way we build products” within your company. Your system has been available, reliable, and useful for long enough to become an accepted part of the culture within your organization.

Regardless of its origin, a new design system requires a lot of education for potential subscribers. Some may be new to design systems, others may be resistant to making the necessary changes to incorporate the system into their familiar processes and habits. The team supporting the design system is often responsible for “selling” it internally by demonstrating its value and ideal use. New employees are educated on the system, while those with longer tenures have long since been brought up to speed. When tradition exists, benefits from the collective commitment of the organization to using the system multiply.

Design system teams can move towards the tradition stabilizer by incorporating engagement and education into their approach. The more education around the system and best practices that you provide, the quicker you’ll gain the broad support and understanding you need from your community.

Maintaining Stabilizer Balance and Longevity

Achieving a successful, stable design system takes time. From the earliest days of a design system’s development, it will earn its way toward becoming a part of your organization’s culture, building trust and respect with diverse teams, and proving the importance of the system to the leaders of the organization. Continued investment in the system will guide its evolution into a product that provides measurable value.

Organizations that consistently maintain all three stabilizers produce robust systems and establish communication, trust, and unity among all parties involved:

  • Executives use their authority to endorse the product. They encourage their employees to use and participate in the evolution of the system.
  • Team members feel confident that management has their back and devote time and resources to developing a product that creates tangible value in their professional lives.
  • The organization develops the tradition of systematic and iterative thinking.

If you can confidently say that you have a successful system today with all three stabilizers working in harmony, that’s a huge achievement. But keeping all of the stabilizers in place is not a guarantee. Company needs and priorities change. People within a company may come and go, even at the most senior levels. And technology evolves with mind-spinning speed. So be sure to continually monitor the health of these stabilizers.

Interested in Learning More About Building a Stable Design System?

We encourage you to take our Design System Maturity Assessment and answer a few questions to generate a report that outlines your maturity stage, origin story, and the steps you can take to move your product forward.

Once you have a blueprint for your product, it’s time to create a daily strategy to help you achieve your goals. We’ve created a calendar that keeps you on track and allows you to organize and complete the numerous tasks required to maintain your design system.

When we partner with an organization on a design system project, we encourage them to think of their design system as not just a software product but a part of the culture. Having human-centered processes in place around the system ensures that you keep your finger on the pulse of change. If your team is struggling with maintaining your system, take a few minutes to contact us for help.

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