(This is a sponsored post.) Design systems help product teams to approach design with a system in mind. But not all design systems are equally effective. Some design system help product teams create coherent experience; others produce confusing designs.
The effectiveness of a design system can be measured by how well it works to help achieve the purpose of the product. In this article, we’ll try to find the qualities that make a design system good for your product development.
Do You Clearly Understand Why You Need A Design System?
All too often, product teams attempt to create a solution for a problem they don’t have. And when it comes to creating a design system, some teams attempt to create a system just because other teams are doing it.
Product And Company Maturity
Companies have different levels of design maturity. Some companies have a product with thousands of users, while others are just beginning to implement their product.
Creating a design system from scratch is a time-consuming activity. Small fast-moving teams likely don’t need a design system because it would slow them down. A three-to-five–person startup that is trying to find a product-market fit would probably spend a significant amount of time creating a system. And if resources are being spent on building a design system, they aren’t being spent on building the product. Until the company establishes a clear direction with its product, investing time in creating a design system risks producing a lot of waste.
A design system should come from the need to increase efficiency at scale. And it happens only when a team has real problems with the efficiency that prevent it from moving quickly. Let your team hit scale first and reach a point where inefficiencies such as in the technical and design departments become significant factors in design decisions.
Interface Audit And Technology Stack
Many companies tend to build a design system on top of the current interface, but this approach is not very good for many reasons. Imagine that your company has been building a product for a long time without a system; it’s likely that the product has some level of inconsistency in design.
That’s why if you plan to introduce a design system, start with an audit: Explore existing interactions, and collect all of the UI elements in your product. Collect all elements that make up the interface, and file them for review. The reviews should help you to understand the reason for inconsistency and the changes you’ll need to introduce in the design process in order to avoid such problems in the future.
Does The Design System Set A Clear Direction For Designers And Developers?
A design system is valuable only if the people who are working on the product adopt it. Shared understanding plays a vital role in adoption of the system.
Before starting to design a product, it’s essential to align teams around a clear set of shared goals. Build a vision, and ensure that everyone is looking in the same direction. A design system should give teams a guided way to build solutions for their product problems.
Mapping Out User’s Needs, Goals, And Motivations
One of the first things we need to do when starting to work on a product is to understand who our users are and what are their goals, needs, and motivations. This information should be the foundation of the design system you want to create.
Tools like user-journey mapping and the framework will help you to understand how people interact with your product. The product team should keep this information in mind when working on the design system.
Express The Purpose Of The Product
The purpose is the core of the product, and it should inform design and development decisions. The purpose of a product should be expressed in one sentence. For instance, if we were designing a meditation app for quick relaxation, our goal would be to help people who use our app to relax. If we expressed this purpose in a single sentence, it would be something like, “Help people relax in no time.”
Note that the purpose should be natural, not forced; otherwise, the team won’t believe in it.
Establish Clear Design Principles
Solid design principles are the foundation of any well-functioning system. They should capture the essence of what good design means for the company and provide practical recommendations for product teams on how to achieve it.
Below are just a few guidelines for design principles.
Design Principles Should Be Authentic And Genuine
Many of us hear principles like “simple and useful”. But qualities like these should be a given. Knowing that your product should be simple and useful is not going to be helpful in guiding your design decisions. Imagine that a new member joins your team, and you need to share the three guiding principles that are most important when designing a product. You might say something like, “We like simple things — strive to create simple things.” This doesn’t say much to the person. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would intentionally create a complex and useless product.
That’s why principles should offer practical guidance on how to solve a design problem within the context of the particular product. One of the design principles of Medium, a popular blogging platform, is “Direction over choice.” Thanks to this principle, instead of designing a text editor with endless visual styles, Medium’s design team decided to limit the number of visual styles. In doing so, they make the writer focus on what’s really important: the content they are producing.
Design Principles Should Be Memorable
Ask the people in your company what your design principles are. If no one can remember them, chances are they are not working.
Design Principles Should Provide Practical Examples
Even the best principles can be interpreted in different ways. Nothing makes a principle clearer that being paired with a real-life example, showing how it can be applied in context.
Tip: Sometimes you need to provide counter-examples to help people understand what not to do.
How Effective Is The Design Language Of The Interface?
A design language emerges as a team works on a product. The design language of the interface has a significant impact on how users interact with the product. If a product created with a design system is confusing and doesn’t help users achieve their goals, then the design system is not effective.
How Design Patterns Are Executed And Applied
A pattern is a reusable solution that can be applied to solve a design problem. Design patterns are shaped by the core idea of how a product works, and they form the foundation of the language that the team uses to communicate with users.
There are two types of patterns: functional and perceptual.
Functional patterns are the tangible building blocks of an interface. Buttons, icons, text fields and so on all come together to form what we call a product.
Many factors influence the choice of design patterns, and most of them come from the domain that the product belongs to and from its core functionality. Let’s take a finance product as an example. A finance product might need to prioritize multitasking and quick scanning (which require greater information density). In Bloomberg’s interface, shown below, density is achieved through tight spacing, compact controls, and good typography choices.
In his book _The Timeless Way of Building_, Christopher Alexander asks why some places feel so great to be in, while others feel dull and lifeless. According to him, the way places and buildings make us feel is the result of specific patterns: perceptual patterns.
Perceptual patterns focus on what users feel. Colors, typography, iconography, shapes, and animation come together to form the identity of a product. Without perceptual patterns, you wouldn’t sense much difference between products in the same domain.
The aesthetics and voice and tone in a product should capture the personality and ethos we want to convey through the interface:
- How do we want our product to be perceived?
- Is our product serious or playful?
- Should it be utilitarian or emotional?