How Design Systems power digital businesses

Social media, online financial services, and eCommerce have led economies into an unprecedented digital transformation process. In an ever-evolving digital world, businesses and people are the most unpredictable variables. We need to equip organizations with rapid methods and tools to keep up with fast and evolving markets. But traditional development is hard and takes a long time. Today’s enterprises need resources that enable them to design digital business-critical elements at scale – fast!

Unfortunately, many enterprises and industries are struggling to keep up with the pace of digital transformation, and – as COVID-19 catapulted many more aspects of everyday life online – this transition has become an even greater competitive challenge.

However, businesses that prioritize and effectively manage customer experience drive 3x more revenue growth and are more likely to significantly exceed their top business goals. This is because they are able to learn quickly within their markets and generate higher-quality products and services that meet the needs of their customers.

If you are struggling to create the conditions for competitive digital experiences, this article presents the key component that holds the key to digital transformation – a Design System.

What is a Design System?

Design Systems are a set of technical components, work processes, and design guidelines – that together move companies and teams towards the same vision and purpose in designing digital experiences. The motivation behind investing in a design system is not only the reuse of code and components but also the systematization of product development. Design Systems achieve this by establishing processes that teams can use and drive collaboration between all functional areas that contribute to the product development life cycle.

Design Systems create better digital Customer Experiences (CX)

Even as many organizations are now aware of the business value of design, committing a significant investment toward design still keeps many leaders awake at night.  Growing a design team is only one of many strategies for scaling design across the organization – and one that is difficult to measure the return on.  More resources are certain to drive costs, but without a design system that unites experience design, product design, technology, and business operations, the investments rarely pay off.

In simple terms: A digital experience is built-up of User Interface (UI) and visual elements, guidelines to support business logic and user behavior, data, and integrations, like third-party services, APIs, or existing alternative core systems. A design system allows for more of the design work and the User Interface designs to be created and managed as software in tandem with the other layers of the experience.

Common abstraction layers of software solutions

It is the software aspect that brings the flexibility and scale needed for any digital transformation. For digital experiences to be great, the experience and usability must span across multiple types of devices and be relatively effortless. In addition to great visual effects and usability, a good design system also provides accessibility.

Forrester calls it The Billion-Customer Opportunity: Digital Accessibility and advises companies to use design systems to help achieve their accessibility goals.  Designing and coding with accessibility adherence will allow components to follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), reducing the risk of accessibility issues creeping into the digital experience.

Design Systems build better organizations

The most important thing to remember about Design Systems is that they are for people! They make life easier for two important groups: the users – the consumers of experiences – and the product developers – the makers of experiences.

Users benefit from a design system through better experiences provided by fewer usability and accessibility issues, which help to increase the value of the customer experience.

Product developers benefit from a design system because it systematizes development and streamlines collaboration. An effective design system optimizes the flow of work which shortens the time to market.  Re-usable code components support delivering business value early and often.

Investing in a Design System

An investment in a Design System will ultimately only pay off if the digital products and services the organization provides are successful in generating business value.

However, there are more immediate and observable effects that also contribute to success on the cost side.  A successful design system will change the way designers, product managers, developers, and testers collaborate and work together in building products and services. 

The most immediate effect of a successful Design System implementation is a reduction in employee workloads and costs of activities, such as:

  • Code or UI refactoring
  • Rapid prototyping and design reviews
  • Research
  • Development and testing

What we typically witness is that the decrease in maintenance efforts gets reinvested in customer experience (CX) research. Reusable components free up designers and developers from repetitive tasks to tasks that add value to the product or service.

Changed distribution of efforts for product development with a Design System

Design systems make work less repetitive

As a design system converts a lot of design work and outputs to software artifacts, the benefits of component reuse for developers also benefit designers.

Instead of re-creating wireframes and buttons and re-running UI tests, a design system will assure those branding guidelines, interactions, and coding are consistent across channels and experiences. This allows designers and researchers to solve more complex problems – like reimagining an entire customer journey or designing an innovative new solution that leverages the customer experience.

Manage a Design System as a product

The best approach for a successful design system is to manage it like a product. As with most new products, one of the challenges of design systems is adoption. No matter how good the technical components are, there is no guarantee of a smooth adoption.

One reason design system implementations are challenging are dependencies and stakeholder agreements. Major changes in a design system will affect multiple user groups, multiple channels, and devices and experiences.

We believe the best practice when it comes to a design system is to follow the same fundamental principles that underpin all software development. It is to deliver value early and often through frequent releases; to manage implementation optimizing the flow of work end-to-end, and to drive and discover quality with fast feedback.

Relying on a build-measure-learn loop driving adoption based on user feedback is a less risky approach than trying to design or adopt an existing design system in one go.

Measuring the performance of a Design System

A design system works when it is effective in supporting the product developers, the makers, to create better experiences for business users, the consumers.

A Design System is successful when it helps create value both internally and externally

But just supporting user design work is not enough.

We recommend viewing the performance of a Design System adoption from a product perspective, with a sharp eye on both the internal and external perspectives. Some of the value metrics to look at are customer effort and brand loyalty. To manage the flow of work we recommend looking at end-to-end lead times and release frequency. For quality, customer satisfaction, and usability are key to design system success.

Deliver VALUE early and oftenOptimize the FLOW of work end-to-endDiscover QUALITY with fast feedback
User
Experience
Customer Effort
(CES)
Time to Market
(LEAD TIME)
Customer Satisfaction
(CSAT)
Product DevelopmentBrand Loyalty
(NPS)
Release FrequencyAccessibility and Usability
(SUS)
A simplified view of key metrics for Design System performance

In addition, a design system also supports the work of branding and marketing to create the brand culture and keep up with the market and customers’ emerging needs to make product development more efficient. We plan to cover the topic of Design KPI in more depth in future posts.

In summary

To be a competitive and thriving digital business, providing better experiences for your customers and users than the competition is the recipe for success.

A Design System is a solution whereby experiences can be expertly designed by combining the skills of UX researchers and designers, managed effectively as software using product management best practices.

If you have any feedback on this article, get in touch with our team! To learn more about our approach and experience with design systems, keep an eye on the next Tech Insights we will be sharing on the topic. Discover more about how Design Systems help teams to build high-quality digital experiences with usability and accessibility in mind.