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We’ve discussed before the importance of design systems, and how to create a design system for your product or organisation. But even with the best-laid plans, sometimes changes in company direction or product features mean that your design system fails. 

The temptation is to see a design system as one that is beyond failure. You’ve done all the hard work, so why would it fail? Often misunderstood and misapplied, a design system should continue to evolve with questions relating to the benefits of its use, investment and positioning for success continually being answered.

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Essentially, a design system is about consistency, and there are thousands of examples of brands who have achieved iconic status with a seemingly fail-proof design system. It involves the use of consistent components across products and other features. It is design organisation at its best.

Or is it?

Consistency may be key to getting your message out there, but this alone will not wipe away a poor experience. A design system will not suddenly and unequivocally wipe away problems and issues either for the product or between team members. It won’t automatically rectify the wrong font being used or the correct sizing of other graphics.

So, what can (and does) go wrong with a design system? And just as important, how do you claw back from mistakes? Below, we take a look at the reasons a design system can fail, and how you can remedy this failure.

Why do design systems fail?

In a nutshell, nothing stays the same. And yet, schemes and systems are created that are given end dates and completion dates. As a result, users assume that what they have is ‘it’. They need to fit within it and remain within its boundaries.

Seeing a design system as a fixed asset is an underlying issue as to why a system of this kind will fail. There are other reasons too including;

1. Lack of organisational support and understanding

A design system is a product of a company and, as such, needs to be supported and nurtured at all levels. When this doesn’t happen, the impact of a design system starts to fail. This is an issue that is compounded by a lack of investment in it.

At the heart of lack of support is lack of understanding as to what a design system is and why’s it is needed. Potential users need to understand why it is being implemented. Key to this is for everyone from the top-down and the bottom up to understand the benefits it will bring so that this can be communicated.

Will a design system, for example, better position the company within its sector? Will it drive growth and open up new markets? In everyday working, what will it provide and, most importantly, how do users access it? How are they part of its development and maintenance?

2. Lack of or sporadic investment 

People see investment differently because people place different values on different aspects. With some activities, investing heavily at the start of the process is often required. However, if this investment along with the level of nurture and support dwindles, so does the drive and effectiveness of the task in hand.

The same is true for maintaining a design system. Small but consistent investment of people, time, money and resources is preferable in terms of results and growth than larger chunks performed sporadically. 

For those companies that get it right, you’ll often find a small but dedicated team continually working on a design system. 

3. Lack of responsibility

This last point feeds into the notion of responsibility. There are many facets to maintaining a design system, so that it doesn’t fail. And that means bringing together a cross-department team of people to maintain creativity, use and input. 

Support and development of the system on a  company-wide basis are just two aspects of this team’s work, along with advocating its use and managing the project as a whole. 

There are many ways to do this, from online communication tools to face-to-face meetings that encourage a company-wide take up of the system.

4. Ineffective communication (and making the final decision)

We all possess an innate desire to be heard. And when we don’t feel listened to, things can go wrong. 

Continuous communication is important to prevent design system failure, but it is not without its challenges. With so many competing voices, it is tricky to reach a final decision. But it needs to happen.

All difficulties aside, communication must be open and transparent in order for any design system to be a success.

5. Poor user buy-in

If people use it and don’t like it, how do they feed back? And when they do offer feedback, are they listened to?

Communication, we know, is key, but walking closely hand-in-hand is user buy-in. If people don’t use it or have no plans on using it, whether they know it exists or not, a design system is doomed to fail.

People need to want to use the system and, as we know, following the path of least resistance is the way to encourage people to try something. In other words, you need to highlight the value of the system.

Showing is more powerful than telling and so showcasing examples of ‘usage wins’ is a clear winner to persuade people to trust the system.

There are many ways that an organisation can do this. And when you do get people using it, you need to analyse how they are using it, the problems they are coming up against, listening to the suggestions they have and so on. Don’t forget, this is a constantly evolving project, and gathering feedback from users in a continuous loop is an advantage. 

6. Limited consideration of customisation and growth

Your company won’t stay the same. Your customers won’t remain the same people. New products and acquisitions, for example, will widen your customer base. In other words, your business will grow.

See also →  5 ways your brand perception is boosted by your digital presence

But how scalable is your design system? We often talk of solid foundations, and there is no doubt that the architecture of your design system needs these, but there also needs to be room for the scaling up (and down) of a design system, along with customisation too. 

7. Overly complex

Why do design systems become obsolete? The answer lies in friction – the harder a user finds it to use, the less likely they are to use it. 

It’s a simple concept and one that applies to many systems and applications, but with a design system that feels and acts like it is over-engineered and overly complex, people simply won’t use it. 

8. Inflexibility

A design system is never meant to be finished. And yet we use the word ‘complete’ when it reaches a certain stage.

We associate something that is ‘complete’ as being done, with nothing more to be added or taken away. But it can also be used as a marker, a means of describing a system that, for the time being, is responding as it should to a set of circumstances and users. 

When the situation changes, so too does the ‘complete’ marker. In other words, the flexibility of a design system is key to preventing failure. Just like software updates eliminate bugs or patch a problem, the same needs is true of a design system. 

What underpins design system success?

Even knowing all this, even with all the planning and designing, a design system can fail. Others who have been in this situation are keen to share their experiences;

  • Manage expectations – whatever the goals of your design system, manage what your users will expect it to deliver. For example, it may save a little time, but it won’t change the world. As a result, focussing on the ‘other things that are important’, such as communication and understanding, is more productive and useful.
  • Small steps, taken often – we’ve already addressed the issue of working consistently on a design system, with small building blocks as opposed to large chunks of time, input and investment. With many people and user needs feeding into the designing of the system, coming up with a ‘complete’ scheme will be nigh on impossible and inevitably miss the mark for some users.
  • Design for users – rather than assuming you know what users need, get them involved. What one person needs to be able to easily access the system and use it will be very different from another user. An improved understanding between different users is also key to a successful design system.

Managing and maintaining a design system

Creation is the start of the process with managing and maintenance key components in ensuring the success of your design system. There are many exciting developments yet to come.

Our team at aims to give you the tools and know-how to deliver a design system that ticks everyone’s boxes, that is scalable and flexible but above all, usable. Contact us to find out how we can do this for you.

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