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Shaping a North Star vision for your design system team

The journey toward establishing a stable and mature design system can be challenging. Similar to humans, systems undergo various lifecycle phases that include growth spurts and pains. To unlock the full potential of your design system, it is key to define a shared future vision and (re)align your team accordingly. Here are some actionable tips to help you get started.

Over the past decade, numerous organizations have witnessed exponential growth in their digital ecosystems, encompassing a wide range of products, devices, platforms, and even themes and brands. Hence, many organizations embraced design systems, leveraging their ability to foster consistency across diverse digital landscapes and promote product reusability — all achieved without the need to reinvent the wheel or accumulate technical debt.

The journey toward a stable and mature design system can be challenging. At times, doubt may infiltrate the team or, even more concerning, the management: Our design system was intended to accelerate product delivery to market, not impede it. And, why do we still encounter inconsistencies in our digital experiences?

These types of questions do not come as a surprise to me. Similar to people, systems undergo various lifecycle phases: they start as small infants who gradually explore the world, questioning everything and everyone, they then experience rebellious adolescence, until they eventually mature into stable adults.

Throughout these phases, growth spurts and pains are commonplace. As a design system team, it's crucial to realign your future vision during these spurts, recognizing when team members may have diverged into different directions on what they want to build, leading your team sideways instead of forward.

So, if you haven't done it yet, now is the time to define a North Star vision. Bring your key stakeholders to the table, discuss your end goal, and devise a plan to get there.

In this article, I'd like to share a few tips on how to (re-)align your design system team.

Pick your starting point

To craft a future vision, it's essential to understand your starting point. While every team and project differ slightly, you'll typically:

  • Make an inventory of what your current system has or lacks: foundations & components, a documentation site, a governance process, management buy-in, etc.

  • Conduct a research phase with stakeholder interviews involving the system team itself, subscriber teams, and other relevant stakeholders.

  • Dive into data and metrics to understand how the system is currently used and by whom.

Some key decision areas will emerge quickly.

The 5 key decisions to include in your North Star vision.

Your analysis will bring out the key decision areas you need to focus on. They may very from design system to design system, however, there are certain topics that should be included in every North Star vision:

  • Audience definition: Create a stakeholder map. Define who could benefit from the design system, now and in the future. Identify current users and those eager to adopt. Specify teams or projects that won't benefit due to misaligned requirements. Start onboarding one team or product and expand as the design system matures. Treat it as an agile process; overselling from the start doesn't guarantee success.

  • Tech architecture: Identify frameworks and technologies within your organization. In early phases, design systems can be strongly oriented toward the product or technology they originated from. Zoom out on the entire landscape to spot new opportunities and make your system more technology-agnostic. Avoid unnecessary efforts in one-off or end-of-life products and technologies.

  • Lego or Playmobil approach: Determine the level of creative freedom for subscriber teams. A Lego model, providing small building blocks, offers flexibility but may result in inconsistent or low-quality deliverables. A Playmobil approach involves designing larger, combined building blocks and patterns for a faster, more foolproof way to create digital experiences. Define your approach upfront based on end-user needs.

  • Governance model: Decide on the organizational structure. A bottom-up model may start with a group creating components voluntarily, but it's challenging to scale. A top-down model involves a dedicated team building a system for various stakeholders. In a later phase, a federated model may emerge, where multiple teams share the effort. Understand how your decision impacts collaboration between teams for a successful future.

  • Scope/roadmap: Avoid focusing solely on typical UI elements. Align your design system's roadmap with your company's and subscriber teams' plans. Identify components and patterns that align with their needs. This ensures your design system remains relevant, maintains engagement with subscribers, and demonstrates value to leadership.

Everyone benefits from having a clear vision for the future and working together toward a scalable and future-proof design system that facilitates the delivery of great and consistent products to your customers.

Get your organization on board

Decisions in the above domains provide a clearer direction. Though not all decisions will be easy, providing a clear direction fosters alignment. Over time, revisit them as needed.

To elevate your North Star direction, capture your vision in an inspirational format: a poster, a storytelling presentation, or even an animated video. Rally your team around it, revisit it regularly, and share it with stakeholders and subscribers to spark enthusiasm.

Everyone benefits from having a clear vision for the future and working together toward a scalable and future-proof design system that facilitates the delivery of great and consistent products to your customers.

By Ives De Blieck

As the Head of Design at Craftzing, my mission is to build a cohesive team of skilled digital creatives. I firmly believe that well-thought-out design is crucial for enhancing user experience and accurately conveying the emotional essence of the business strategy.