Can a Design System align an organization?
5 min readMay 3, 2019

By: Howie Howatson and Dale Simpson

Let’s start by establishing an important fact: no two Design Systems are the same. Organizations seek a Design System because they’re feeling pain when it comes to efficient, consistent, quality customer-centric delivery. They feel it in the trenches day to day and the challenges flow upwards to leadership. Or, you have a company that has decided: ‘we need to change ourselves, we can see what the future is, we’re going to be disrupted.’ Every landscape is different.

With that in mind, the key considerations when developing a Design System are ensuring organization-wide adoption, accelerating speed to market for customer-targeted content, and having a full line of sight for the performance of customer experiences. Ultimately, you learn from there, iterating and making things better as you go along. There is also an often uncomfortable cultural shift that needs to occur in order to empower the teams creating the experiences to make the decisions without top-down gatekeeping preventing the necessary speed. Let’s take a closer look at the moving parts that are necessary to create the best experience possible with the least amount of friction while adopting a Design System.

What was the original problem?

From inception, it’s essential to have the proper in-depth discovery period to actually understand what the true outcomes are that we’re trying to achieve. This means taking a step back and asking, “what was the original problem?” and being fearless about uncovering things. Everybody involved will have a preconceived notion of what the solution is because everyone wants a drive to a solution.

The fact that it’s focused on the client is a massive transformation for a lot of institutions, particularly very successful institutions. Asking a simple question like, “Who owns the holistic customer journey?”, and being met with blank stares. The customer exists as a complete journey in their mind, not broken into siloes that reflect the internal structure of a business, and you should view them holistically so that you can actually create impact. For many of these organizations, they’re not necessarily feeling the pain of disruption yet and so they feel there’s no reason to change. It’s one of those things you need to get ahead of right now. There’s a great deal of impetus to get ahead and be able to move at the speed of innovation that’s necessary, because disruption is coming for all businesses and verticals.

Define your unknowns, be prepared to pivot

So where does it the begin? How do you achieve the necessary momentum? As much as you want to look at things far ahead and decide what is the ‘right’ problem to solve and what are the right questions to answer, you need to be careful not to fall into the traditional trap of trying to plan the entire thing at the beginning. At some point, your decisions and their perceived efficacy become a lot foggier as they get farther out into the future — the Cone of Uncertainty is still alive and well. All in all, you need to be revisiting and learning as you go. That means defining the first set of unknowns and then progressively working through them. That’s where that Lean cadence, that rapidplan kind of cycle of innovation comes into play. It’s the process of learning from what you’ve built so far, and what you’ve been able to get customer exposure to that gives you the necessary information to make the next set of decisions. You need to be able to pivot.

To achieve this, there also needs to be a way to guide stakeholders through an exercise where you can draw out those perspectives, and get to a place where they’re all on the same page. If you don’t have everyone aligned, it becomes clear based on how quickly decisions are being made or how quickly consensus being reached. Essentially, it’s asking “where are we on the range of conflict?” If you look at the range of passive agreement to something much more ugly, that middle is the good zone. The desire to learn is always there, it may just be siloed or not able to see it right away. That’s kind of that cultural change we were talking about earlier, getting everyone aligned on the outcome that we’re driving towards. After that, the path toward those outcomes, and the ability to make decisions becomes a lot more clear.

Redefining traditional KPIs

Just as important as being aligned is being truly user-centric, considering all constituents from day one. It’s not just the end customer’s needs; you also have internal stakeholders, the people or groups who own brand, you have the teams who will use the design system, and you have the business goals and needs.

You start with UX Research to determine what needs are being addressed for all parties identified, you establish your DevOPs to install confidence in the ability to deliver at speed, and you understand what analytics are needed to measure success, provide insights to improve experiences, and create clarity. With these steps addressed you could begin an MVP. Now you have a foundation to move along into a larger innovation construct including a Design System, which is like a Lego kit to quickly, create quality outcomes and experiences with baked in quality. You establish your Design Ops, which clears the way for those people consuming the design system so they are focused solely on solving problems for the customer. Finally you have the concept of ContentOps, which can go all the way from the molecular documentation within the design system or the UX Copy (such as call to action), up to larger multivariate or split test campaigns, or content. Brand context is enormously important throughout in order to inform decisions, experiences, and voice in a consistent, purpose-driven manner.

Taking into consideration all of those integral moving pieces, you also need to find and reframe your KPI’s or whatever you want to measure it by. It’s not just the traditional quantitative stuff such as the number of conversions, cart abandonment, and so on. There’s this entire other squishy side that’s qualitative like the speed of adoption, satisfaction or use, or amount of collaboration. This includes methods such as collecting feedback, because just like anything else in life, without feedback you can’t improve — It’s just a shot in the dark. These qualitative measurements become leading indicators that can tell you what the larger experience is going to be like and what quality is going to be overall. Making sure that we have the right KPI’s, or the right OKR’s ensure it’s absolutely clear, ‘yeah we’re on target’ or ‘no, wait a minute, those last changes we made are not giving us feedback that we’re looking for’ so that you can make decisions immediately, pivot, and improve.

Innovating faster, together

When it’s time to get stuff done, you need to bring together the diversity of perspective necessary and the people who are going to participate in truly being egoless to create the right customer experiences at the necessary speed. All participants are creative participants regardless of role. This gives people a perspective, something to focus on that they can visualize they’re all working towards in a meaningful way. All in the service of the customer.



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