Thought Piece | Design

How Design Systems boost innovation

Author: Carla Iliffe
Date: 01/07/20

How Design Systems boost innovation

At Splendid we have been talking about, and creating, Design Systems for our clients for years, but in the new world of working that we now find ourselves in, it’s never been more pertinent.

So what does a good Design System look like?

The role of Design Systems is frequently misunderstood. At one end of the confused spectrum it’s often seen as a style guide, and at the other, as a magic word to solve every delivery issue under the sun. But, used in the right way, a Design System can be the rocket fuel for teams. A good Design System should be the nexus to generate new ideas, while providing the structure to do so in a way that’s right for the brand. As a living embodiment of your brand expression, it gives product teams confidence that they are making the right design decisions. That means more than colour palettes and text styles. It should communicate your strategy, principles, and objectives in a way that people can actually use – ideally with code, live examples and reusable patterns. When combined with streamlined processes, it becomes a continuous point of reference that should naturally keep evolving, aiding innovative thinking.

The big business and process benefits

Now more than ever, we’ve seen that businesses need to innovate rapidly, fail fast and target investment in the right place to deliver benefits. In a few short months we’ve seen businesses around the world pivoting in previously unimaginable ways in response to the COVID-19 outbreak – from engineering giants like Dyson building ventilators, to fashion houses like Zara making PPE, to distilleries like BrewDog transforming their facilities to produce hand sanitiser. Seismic changes like that simply cannot be achieved without strength in delivery.

Rapid rollouts to existing services – think video dating with Match.com, Netflix Parties and Instagram workouts – have been the digital big winners of the pandemic so far. Given the uncertainty of the economic outlook, it will be those that continue to adapt and innovate fast that will survive.

But all that pivoting can be dizzying. How do you maintain clarity so you can pivot and deliver new innovations AND make sure your brand is still recognisable to customers, no matter what cape you’re wearing?

This is where a Design System and aligned processes come into their own.

Platform solidity provides the flexibility to adapt products and services quickly. Take for example the Design System we put in place for Cera, which has allowed them to adapt their product backlog rapidly during the Covid crisis, rolling out urgent new features without compromising on the quality of the experience.

Add to that the fact that operational rigour and workflow efficiency are ever critical. With product teams increasingly working remotely, the reality for many now involves a blizzard of conference calls, Slack channels, emails and chats. A good Design System will reduce that noise dramatically and minimise miscommunication of the fundamental things that matter to both the business, and its customers. That clarity in delivery is fundamental to avoid burning through time, budgets and your team’s sanity.

Why it matters to customers too

Clarity goes beyond business-as-usual too. Design systems are equally powerful for emerging businesses that need to act fast, while building a recognisable brand expression. The public have never been more aware of the impact of their consumer choices. As the projected recession deepens and purse strings tighten, brands will need to work harder than ever to differentiate their digital experiences and demonstrate transparency in the way they work. A possible shift in the ‘techlash’ may be emerging following the pandemic, as we’re effectively now seeing how quickly companies can deliver benefits in real-time. As Steven Levy highlighted in this article for Wired recently, “while Big Tech’s misdeeds are still apparent, their actual deeds now matter more to us”. We’re all more aware of how reliant we are on digital services, whether from small brands or giants like Amazon, but we’re watching how well they can respond to our own rapidly changing needs. Reacting at the right moment, and delivering solutions in the right way, relies heavily on both alignment in processes and a strong Design System. Airbnb demonstrated this perfectly at the start of the pandemic by launching an impressive global initiative to help house 100,000 healthcare professionals, relief workers and first responders. Not only does this sit perfectly with their ‘Belong Anywhere’ message, it was communicated clearly and delivered at a timely moment. The investment that has gone into their Design System is undoubtably a key factor in their ability to rollout the response rapidly and successfully, demonstrating a clear expression of the brand.

What to look out for...

Where we see Design Systems fail, is the focus being backward facing. Many design teams fall into the trap of trying to archive and capture everything that already exists, setting rules around usage and then failing to get anyone to adhere to them. At that point, your Design System isn’t working for you, you’re working for it. Not only is that frustrating for everyone involved, it has little benefit other than satisfying the OCD of its author. Equally, uncertainty or inconsistency in processes can prevent a Design System from delivering any significant value. A Design System in itself is not a fix-all solution, it’s an accelerator of process. It’s all very well having a box of tricks, but if everyone disagrees about how and when to use them, the magic won’t happen.

Where do we begin?

We work with all our clients to understand the true motivating forces behind the brand, its customers, teams and stakeholders. This approach means people, principles and purpose drive the company’s innovation and future thinking, rather than preconceptions. It’s Digital made Human. We’ve recently been working with a major UK housing association to do exactly that. It’s an ongoing process which is continuing to evolve as their Group portfolio grows and new platforms are launched. So, ask yourself 3 things… if your answer is “no” to any of these it’s time to start a conversation:

1. Are your principles at work?

While business principles are often set at the highest stratosphere, understandable and actionable experience principles can provide teams with direction in rapid product strategy and design decisions.

2. Are you delivering as efficiently as possible?

Taking time to look at how an idea travels through your business, from inception to delivery, can reveal a multitude of ways the processes can be optimised to save time, money and headaches.

3. Are you paying for the right tools?

If your organisation is paying through the teeth for a range of tools that aren’t playing a valuable role in your delivery process, it’s time to review how your teams are actually using them.

Prioritising your costs and rollout

But wait, I hear you shout, we need an ROI immediately! Where do we start?!

By far the most common misconception we hear from businesses is the perceived effort involved in getting a Design System rolling. But in truth, it doesn’t need a huge investment to start generating a return. Getting the fundamentals in place significantly saves time, minimises miscommunication and builds trust through every level of the business.

The heavy lifting comes when you introduce layers of detail, such as code, interaction and motion, but a Design System should be a living, evolving entity. It doesn’t have to be perfect or include everything from day dot. Often, it’s better when it’s not, or it’s likely you have stopped looking forward.

In our experience we find product and digital teams that focus on building their confidence in delivery, rapidly become exponentially stronger and more profitable as a result. In turn, every pillar of the business knows its purpose, and teams are fuelled to do what they do best… Make Stuff Happen.

In short – invest in your team’s tactics and your path down the road less travelled will be faster, smoother, smarter and safer.