The Question: Episode 3 Wrap-up
Design Sytem Team Makeup
On Thursday, November 16 of 2023 we held the Episode 3 design system deep dive conversation as part of a series called The Question. Thanks for being part of it.
For this week’s question, I provided this context:
I’ve spoken to design system teams of all sizes and structures. Some are very large and fully dedicated, some are a single person hoping for others around the organization to help out.
This week, I’d love to know how large your team is and a little about who you feel you’re missing.
There are three simple questions:
How many people are dedicated to your design system team?
What role do you feel is most missing from your current design system team (and why)?
What is your personal primary discipline?
I wanted to start with team size to get a bit of context to the answers.
Most of the respondants were small to mid-sized teams, but we also had a good number of larger teams ranging from nine up to more than 30. Additinally, we had eight respondants report that they have no dedicated resources at this time.
Next, I asked people to share what role they felt their current design sytem team was missing.
There was tremendous variety here. I was especially happy to see quite a few content focused roles pretty high on the list of needs. Of note were also design ops, community, and research. I love that teams are broadening their perspective on the kinds of roles they hope for on their systems teams—beyond design and development.
It was also interesting to me that both product and project management were in demand. Many folks reported that they were hobbling along trying to manage the product, prioritize the work, and contribute in design or development in some capacity.
Finally, I asked respondants to share their own primary discipline.
I suppose this isn’t a surprise, but I was hoping for more variety. For the next round, we all agreed we would try to reach a more diverse audience.
What We Learned
After spending some time with the responses, I identified three primary patterns in the responses.
- Teams with little or no dedicated resources
- Teams that felt they were lacking leadership
- Teams that recognized the need for community and content specialties
Little or No Dedicated Resources
Even among folks with small to mid-sized teams, there was an acknowledgement that the scope of work could genuinely use more dedicated people. Several teams reported losing capacity in the last year and many had no dedicated engineering members on their team.
“In the last reorg we lost half of our development capacity”
“We have had our tech partners reallocated to other work”
“We have to ask for development resources from a supporting team and our work has a low priority in their roadmap”
“We are always overloaded with other projects”
“The design system is a secondary initiative alongside a larger re-platform effort”
This was clearly a frustrating situation to be in for many people. It was a great reminder that many of the articles or talks on design systems are presented by people with much larger teams and budgets. While these provide a great perspective on the work, the solutions that work in these contexts might not directly apply to a large subset of teams working on systems.
There were a good number of respondants that expressed a feeling of making progress without knowing where they were going. I interpreted this as a “lack of leadership” on those teams.
“[We need] a single leader, instead of multiple”
“We simply have no single person driving the work and making decisions—it is a collaborative, volunteer effort”
“As implementation expands, support requests increase, and more maintenance is required, a PM would be very useful”
“We’re having to lead, organize, maintain, evolve & advocate a DS all at once which often times can leads us in circles”
“I find myself spending a large amount of time just trying to triage incoming requests, determine who is working on what, connect different teams and work, providing feedback and reasoning, and prioritizing all of it”
“All we are doing are shipping features”
“[We need] someone to drive the roadmap, execution and planning for upcoming work”
The sentiment that “all we are doing is shipping features” seemed to resonate strongly. These are teams that have capacity to execute but are lacking vision. In the Thursday deep dive we discussed this and teased out that many folks feel their leaders claim they support the work but aren’t willing to fund a leadership position to drive that work.
We also had a great conversation about the difference between managing a system as a product and managing a more traditional digital product. Emily shared that she’s found it to be a wildly different journey and a bit of education in systems thinking goes a long way.
In my coaching practice, I’ve picked up on this same scenario. Because of this, I’ve found myself providing leaderhsip training to the design system practitioners I’m coaching. Until the leadership sees the longterm value of a more stystematic design practice, we’ll likely be wearing many hats.
Community and Content
The recognition was strong among respondants that we have to invest in our documentation and our community of users. I was so pleased to see this come through in the data, but also in people’s comments.
“We need a dedicated resource to put behind our general communications strategy”
“[We need an] evangelista—no time to get the word out due to product priority”
“[We need an] educator/trainer—there’s not enough focus on the people who use the system, the team thinks creating components and documentation is enough”
“Our system is missing high level documentation and guidance on UX content practices, microcopy and accessible writing”
“[We. need a] writer, given that the documentation is the just as important as the design and coded assets it should have a dedicated person to ensure it’s quality meets the bar”
“[We need] UX writers. We have a really small team taking care of documentation and design content”
What a breath of fresh air. I believe we often overlook the area of most impact we can have regarding the efficiency of our product design and devleopment—a common language. So many teams are missing this key element. Without it, we often misunderstand each other resulting in rework and frustration. A system won’t give you this automatically, but it can be a great catalyst for that effort.
Along these lines, Brady shared that he looks for a “balance between creation, curation, and innovation” from his design system team. This aligns beautifully with my cycle of healthy design system maturity—a constant iteration between evolving the system, educating about the system, and engaging with the users of the system.
Our deep dive was part data and part therapy. I can sense that a lot of design system teams are tired. With all the layoffs our industry has endured over the last year, many systems teams are doing double duty—helping on public-facing products while still trying to keep their systems alive. This is tough work, but it’s been genuinely good to identify a group of folks who want to see their efforts last. If that’s you, thanks for sticking with it.
Many thanks to all who participated.
If you missed out this week, sign up for The Question and be ready to answer next time.