Long-Term Design System Support (Hint: It’s Not a Sprint)

01-13-21 Katie Jennings

Design systems aren't a one and done effort. Learn three keys to supporting your design system’s adoption, growth, and maintenance long-term.

It’s not uncommon for Sparkbox to hear from prospective clients who have been thinking about design systems, reading about their benefits, making a strong case to their stakeholders, and are finally (finally!) ready to tackle a design system project. If you’re following our work, you already know that we believe deeply in the benefits of systematic thinking for efficiency, consistency, accessibility support, and more. We’ve seen clear evidence that design systems yield measurable results. (You can find a lot more data in our annual Design Systems Survey).

But to really make the most of a design system—to truly get things started on the right foot—there’s one thing that needs to be clear right from the jump. It’s not a project, it’s a product. Approaching your design system as a product means recognizing that this won’t be a one and done effort. You’ll start by putting a strong foundation in place (and we can help!) but the success of your design system requires a continued commitment to adoption, growth, and maintenance over the course of many years.

If your design system is already underway, you may have a team focused exclusively on the design system and might have some processes in place to govern your tools. But for most of the people we meet, design systems are either just getting off the ground or competing for time and resources with other initiatives. There’s still work to be done getting the right practices in order.

If you’re in the latter boat, here are some of the things you need to consider.

Gathering Feedback

People from all over your organization are likely to be engaged with your design system. The more successful you are with the system, the more people you’ll have asking questions, identifying opportunities, or spotting flaws. It’s important to put clear channels of communication in place for users and stakeholders so you can gather feedback in clear and orderly ways.

We suggest that you consider support channels and intake processes for requests and bugs. It’s a good idea to use communication tools your team members are already comfortable with: Jira, Trello, Github, etc. You can use your design system’s documentation site to ensure that folks understand how and when to participate. Make sure you’re responsive to incoming information so your team is motivated to continue working with the design system.

Encouraging Use of the Design System

If you’re still working on increasing participation with your design system, you may want to consider an ambassador program. This kind of program embeds experienced design system team members (often from your core team) with other departments or teams throughout your organization. This can ensure a friendly face and helping hand from your core team for new users in other parts of your organization. It will also allow your team to more easily observe how the design system is being used.

Tactics as simple as newsletters and regular demos of the system can also help. You may be immersed in the system on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean it’s top of mind for all of your colleagues. It’s a smart idea to intentionally and regularly create opportunities to reinforce familiarity with your system, highlight the benefits of using it, and note changes that might inspire users and new subscribers to get involved.

Maintenance and Evaluation

You’ll be working with your design system over the course of many years. During that time, you’ll constantly evaluate, add, modify, and remove components of the system as your needs and available technologies change. It’s a good idea to establish orderly workflows for making changes, testing those, and ensuring that all users are aware of and are prepared for any changes that are coming down the pipe.

Having a regular schedule and process for reviewing the accessibility impact of your design system is also important. Accessibility guidelines can change over time, and you always want to be confident that your design system meets them. As you know, the implementation of design system components may also vary based on the user, particularly if you have a diverse team executing in different areas of the business. Checking in on the implementation of design system components can help ensure that accessibility is being maintained to the greatest degree possible.

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

Does this all sound like too much to tackle at one time? We agree. These, and other best practices, usually need to be implemented methodically over a period of time. That’s why Sparkbox president Ben Callahan has worked with developer Catherine Meade to create a calendar that spreads these and other recommendations and ideas out over the course of a year. Subscribe to our calendar for deeper explanations, links to relevant resources, and regular reminders and motivation to keep your team efficient and your design system thriving.

Subscribe to the Design System Calendar

Please share your name and email below. We’ll send you the information you need to subscribe and gain access to ideas, reminders, and resources throughout the year.