Enable javascript in your browser for better experience. Need to know to enable it? Go here.
Why it pays to start small with design systems

Why it pays to start small with design systems

A well built and managed Design System can deliver immense value. From accelerating time to market to supporting a cohesive user experience, it’s clear to see why more and more organisations are keen to implement their own.


While the potential value of Design Systems is evident, the journey to delivering that value may be different for every organisation. There are a variety of factors to consider when building Design Systems, that can make the process overwhelming if trying to build everything at once.


In our experience, we’ve found that it’s much better to start small with a more focused Design System, then scale up as needed. Here are three big reasons why.


Reason #1: Build a coalition focused on value


Design Systems are built in a variety of forms and flavours. If done right, they don’t follow a pattern, but rather fit what your organisation needs. What’s right for one organisation won’t necessarily be the same for another, and often, it takes some trial and error to understand your exact requirements, or even, whether you need a Design System at all.


This is why it is important to find the value a Design System can bring to your organisation. Spend some time listening and understanding what problems it could solve, which opportunities it will create, and whether now is the right time to build one.


This approach helps you build a shared understanding with the coalition of people you’ll need to make it successful -- designers, developers, leadership and other stakeholders.


Reason #2: Gather feedback and iterate


Product thinking is a valuable approach to apply when creating your Design System. This process of building software as a product seeks to understand your users, and set up feedback loops to ensure what is built evolves to meet their needs.


When building a Design System, your users are generally designers and developers who will use it as a tool to build other products. Even if you share the same role, they may work or think quite differently to you.


It’s essential to listen to and understand them. If you don’t, there’s a high chance your system won’t meet their needs, and subsequently, won’t be used by anyone. Starting small and getting feedback early ensures you can course-correct if needed. 


Reason #3: Early successes enable scaling


Design Systems aren’t just a digital capability that you can build once, deploy, and forget. They need to meet specific needs of internal users and evolve alongside those needs as they change. 


If you’ve already identified the value to provide and you’ve gathered feedback along the way to ensure you’re delivering it, you have the solid foundation from which to grow.


Flaunt your early successes and use them to facilitate conversations with key stakeholders about where to go next if, and when, you need to scale.


Five tips for Design Systems success


If you’re building your first Design System, or you’ve already had a go and it didn’t deliver the results you anticipated, narrowing your focus and starting small is a great place to start. Whatever the scale of your Design System, here are five general tips that can help you ensure your project delivers the right results for every stakeholder:


  • #1: Stay flexible and recognize that you might not get things perfectly right the first time. Finding a Design System that works for you and your team can take time and multiple iterations — even when you start small. 

  • #2: Start with your users and build the Design System with them from the beginning, instead of seeking their input when it’s already been created. 

  • #3: Choose one or two specific goals you’d like a Design System to help you achieve, then work towards them directly. There will be plenty of time to explore other sources of value once you’ve established a solid foundation.

  • #4: Think beyond the Design System at every stage and consider whether tools alone will help you solve the problems you’re trying to fix. For example, are you trying to solve a collaboration problem with a Design System, when there may be much better ways to do that?

  • #5: Stay open to the idea of not using a Design System at all. They’re not for everyone, and depending on your needs and circumstances, they may not be what your team really needs.


Start right and unlock the full value of well-managed Design Systems


When built and maintained correctly, Design Systems can create enormous value for an organization, while improving designer and developer workflows. Starting small helps you tackle the right challenges, and proves the value of Design Systems before scaling what you create up. 

If you’d like to learn more about building high-value Design Systems, watch our on-demand session from YConf


Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.