In an increasingly digitally connected world, customer expectations have never been higher. Thanks to companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and Uber, we take out our phones and expect to find an answer, purchase a product, or get a car home at a moment’s notice. The ability to do this relies not just on the amazing technology we have at our disposal. It’s about how well that technology works for the user. Design is an inherent part of the success of a digital product. In fact, you could argue that design is just as important as the tech behind it: after all, if a product is badly designed, the customer won’t know what to do with it, rendering it useless. If a product is well designed, the customer is enabled to use it. But if a product is brilliantly designed, the customer is compelled to use it, and will return time and time again.
Design is a differentiator. It can strengthen a brand and enable competitive advantage. So it makes sense for businesses to invest in their design capabilities and enable designers to create the perfect experience for users.
Ten to fifteen years ago, an organisation might have had a website serving thousands of customers. Fast forward to today, and it could have a responsive website, e-commerce site, mobile app, microsites, loyalty program, internal intranet, social media presence, marketing campaigns, and maybe even the odd virtual reality experience. All of these would need to successfully serve the individual needs of millions of customers on a myriad of digital devices.
Add to that, the business probably has multiple teams in different locations trying to ensure consistency and further development across all these customer touchpoints, different back-end systems and databases with hundreds of APIs.
In a perfect world, designers and developers would spend their time creating beautiful, hyper-personalised experiences tailored specifically to each customer, enabling the brand to exceed expectations. In reality, siloed designers and developers waste time building the same component multiple times trying to resolve inconsistencies in the visual language.
This is where design systems come in.
You’ve heard of style guides: those static PDFs that set out brand guidelines and ways of presenting work. Design systems follow a similar principle of setting out brand protocol, but they apply to the much more complex area of design and code.
Design systems are libraries of reusable digital components, guidelines and principles. They are the single source of truth throughout an organisation’s digital presence. With potentially hundreds of platforms — from websites to mobile apps — containing thousands of pages, design systems allow visual designers and developers to draw from a library of reusable components.
The beauty of design systems is not necessarily in their consistency, it’s the fact that they enable designers to speed up their workflow (Australian bank Westpac, for example, quoting a 66% reduced design time using its design system, known as the Global Experience Language, or GEL1).
Design systems are built to manage a company’s digital products and enable its design and development teams to deliver experiences at speed.
Large companies such as Atlassian, IBM, Google and Microsoft all use design systems. To these companies, the efficiencies are clear. In 2012, Atlassian began a project to standardise its design patterns and found it had 44 different styles of dropdowns.2 That’s just a dropdown! Have you ever looked at your products and seen that the ‘Submit’ button is in five different locations, or that your primary buttons show up in ten different styles? If you consider that each of your products can have hundreds of components, and if teams were to create each component from scratch… well, you get a picture of the potential wasted effort, not to mention potential for inconsistency.
Westpac reportedly reduced design and production effort by 1,600% by applying GEL to 13 projects. This meant designers were able to support seven times the number of projects they were able to work on previously.3
It might seem straightforward to implement a design system and start deploying design changes, but in reality, deploying it at scale can take months. A common example is that a designer will want to update one thing, and then realise it’s connected to ten other products from ten different teams, all using different code bases in different programming languages. However, if a design system is implemented and planned with a strong future vision, the benefits are numerous.
Speed. One of the most obvious and important positive outcomes is speed. Design systems enable designers and developers to reuse components that have already passed accessibility, been tested by customers for usability, and are 100% responsive to different devices, meaning teams can use them and deploy an experience much faster.
Reduce design debt. As a designed object or system matures – say, for example, a website — certain of its elements will age, the context evolves, and the interactions between elements may change over time. This results in what the industry knows as ‘design debt’ — a disjointedness that can affect functionality, user experience and overall coherence.
Consistency. In standardising digital components, it becomes much easier to create consistent experiences across different platforms. The end result is customers feeling that they are interacting with the same brand across multiple digital touchpoints. They don’t need to get to know — or learn to trust — a new interface.
Cost. Reduced design time and development time have the potential to significantly reduce overhead. If design time is improved by just 20%, the estimated annual savings per developer or UX or UI designer could be anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000.* In larger companies, teams can number in the hundreds!
Design systems are now integral to the workflow of the some of the most successful companies in the world. But they require investment and they demand patience. They continually evolve, adapt to an ever-changing digital landscape, and must be implemented into both new and legacy products. The real power behind a design system is not, however, in the process. It’s in the people. Once implemented, designers are liberated to go back to doing what they do best: solving problems. Can your company afford not to get on board?
* Using a cost per head basis, one UX/UI designer at approximately AU$120/hour x 40 hours a week x 52 weeks, the annual cost to employ them is AU$249,600. At just 20% faster design time, the estimated annual savings would be AU$49,920. Similarly, one developer at an average of AU$75/hour x 40 hours a week x 52 weeks, the annual cost to employ them is AU$156,000. At 20% faster development time the estimated annual savings would be $31,200.
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