Good design systems can change corporate culture by changing the development flow, enabling kick-start innovation and making everything faster.

For me traveling, the act of moving from one place to another, is a form of relaxation. When I am on the move I, nor anyone else, expects anything from me. That time makes it possible for me to learn new things and cultivate ideas that have been bubbling in my head.

During the years I have created a set of templates and practices that allow me to pilot the ideas fast, and even with the limited time available I am often able to deliver the idea as a concept or a pilot product.

Good design systems are like this, too. They remove many of the constraints of creating new innovations so people can be more creative, more quickly.

How to accelerate your business with a design system

In a previous blog post I used a real-life example of how I developed an application in seven hours – from idea to production. The same is true for any organization using a design system in place that is connected to your delivery pipeline. You should be able to evaluate or pilot your innovations in a matter of hours instead of days or, worse, weeks. This blog post explains how.

What is a design system?

In my previous blog post, How to connect DevOps to your design system I explained that a design system is a set of elements that allows teams to design and develop a product, while following the uniform voice and identity of an organization or a company. A design system includes re-usable components that connect the user interface and the code together to form something such as an application for a user.

If you think of it like a set of LEGO® blocks – the elements of a design system help you create any different kind of object, with blocks of code that have been well-defined, are easy to duplicate and re-use. You create something unique, something of your own, using a common set of tools.

A design system is only the start: next comes corporate culture change

Good design systems can change corporate culture. This blog post explains how a design system also changes an organization’s development flow and why using it might be scary for some people.

First and foremost, when you have a design system in place that is made properly, following the best practices of design, development and DevOps, you’re able to kick-start your innovations faster. As a result, you can evaluate your innovations with real customers and users much quicker than you would have been without the design system.

But change isn’t easy for everyone.

Many people perceive change as hard – or, at least, uncomfortable

There are two kinds of discomfort. The first one is that, with change, you have to learn new things. You have to get out of your comfort zone. That’s the individual struggle.

To give you an example if you need to maintain the interface on banking terminal and say to the person who has been maintaining this for years, “Let’s remake this with our new component library” – the first reaction from most people is to say, “No! I like it the way it is. I like tinkering with this terminal. I don’t want you to force me to do new things.”

The second type of discomfort is that you have to give up control. That’s the organizational struggle. 

Using a design system is frightening for some organizations because it removes centralized control

Very few organizations are used to the speed at which innovations are currently happening. Organizations are used to spending time sitting on ideas and innovations. It’s always frightening to push them out. As a result, companies create organizational structures that make it slower. Silos separate design, development, testing and operations. Even if you take advantage of modern DevOps and cloud technologies, the bigger your company is, the more likely you are to have organizational structures that slow you down.

Having a design system in place completely changes the way organizations can try out new things. It means that steering group meetings, budgeting decisions, and committees for deciding if an innovation should go out or not are no longer necessary. They don’t have to define the features or budget. It removes their control and increases perceived risk.

By putting a design system in place we’re completely removing the management hierarchy’s involvement in creating and releasing innovation and we’re preventing them from slowing the organization down. 

That’s why, for many organizations, putting a design system in place is frightening. 

But it’s definitely the future.

The main benefits (speed, innovation and instant feedback) are worth it

With a well-functioning delivery pipeline and design system, everything changes. You are then able to pare down the organizational structures to allow innovation. As a result, innovations that aren’t yet part of your product portfolio can be developed more quickly, and the changes to your existing products flow through the automation for your customers as soon as they are finished. 

Without the gatekeepers, developers can just go ahead and try it out, develop, and release. Push an innovation out, pick your users, and try it on a small scale.

The perfect place to start using a design system is in new cases, small innovations or pilot projects. Then, while new innovations aren’t mission-critical (or not yet mission-critical), they can still go ahead. It’s easier to allow more freedom to release a small innovation fast, collect that feedback, and use that information for decision-making.

Testing it on real users gives you tangible feedback allows you to help you release code much, much faster. You can then this information for decision-making instead of concepting or pitching.  It also helps you fail fast.

This agility does two things:

1)     You get information from real customers more quickly

2)     You can show that teams can be independent in creating and releasing things.

When this proves itself, it allows developers to do all three things that Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive: The surprising truth About What Motivates Us: it gives them autonomy (the ability to take action independently of a committee), purpose (the ability to thrive on solving problems for users, building an app, or getting a product to market) and mastery (the ability to get better at what they do every step of the way using iterative, step-wise refinement).

We’ve already explained the first two steps, but the third step – mastery – is also key. Once you show this release cycle and innovation is possible at a team level, it allows you to collect relevant information which creates a lower threshold to start expanding into other areas of your organisation.

For example, if you’re adding code into a new interface, a design system also allows you to include people involved in multiple organizational assets that share user functionality so they can collaborate on making components re-usable in multiple contexts in future.

The proof of design system value (mastery, harmonious design and trickle-down change) can only be shown once it is in use

Many of our readers may probably be working in an organization where these silos still exist. You might take advantage of DevOps, Cloud and Continuous Delivery – but still have obstacles which could prevent efficiency. This might be as simple as having to take a management decision – do we deliver or release something?

For organisations like this, showing that a self-organised team can use new innovations to produce faster, better, more valuable feedback from customers and users is very valuable. When the evidence of how a design system makes business better, it starts becoming easier to expand that kind of culture and way of working to more legacy / older parts of the organisation.

For example, in banking – there might be separate teams for apps or finance. When one team learns, they create mastery. It is only logical for the next team to use these tools. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Share the learnings with the teams and go faster.

When you change a company’s brand, for example, or improve accessibility or have to respond to market disruption in the way users interact with your services, the benefits of a design system speak for themselves. There’s a huge difference if you have a harmonious design system in place that’s connected to all your products.

You can push all changes through a centralised design system – whether logo change, colour / accessibility change / new way of selecting dates / new way of interacting with a component that you have in all your applications.

If you push it through a design system that’s connected to your products, you only change it in one place and it trickles down to all services and products that you use.

Digital Currencies are a perfect example of how to roll out changes efficiently

Let’s imagine there was a market disruption – for example, if regular banks had to adapt to digital currencies – you would have to support that in all your various interfaces including mobile apps, web user interfaces, maybe terminals as well.

You’d have to push the change to all those various apps – plus third party apps. In a traditional world you’d make the change one by one to all different areas.

But with a centralised design system you’d create the new components there, then distribute the changes through the design system into all of the various interfaces that you use much more simply, instead of just doing the changes in every single interface one by one. 

Another example comes from this DevOps Sauna podcast interview with our customer, Toni Lehtimäki of Vaisala, an embedded device developer with revenue around €260m. Together, we created a design system that helped them address exactly these problems: how to centralize the management of a design system to maintain the capability of collaboration.

One of the most important things a design system does is that it finally allows companies to have a centralized place where you can drive change and induce communication between different parts of the organization, and then share it to these different areas easily through the design system.

Design Systems are the future of DevOps

The fact is that, with a design system, organizations will be way more efficient, way faster, and can be more certain about putting their investment into the right places. (Of course you save money, too – but that’s irrelevant in this context). What’s more important is that you’re saving time and resources by having this system in place. You can drive change – whether it’s a brand change, new ways of interacting with users, or a paradigm shift (such as a change in how users interact). You can save resources and react faster. 

And that puts you ahead of the competition.

In addition, it’s actually enjoyable to work in an organisation with well-functioning design systems and DevOps practices in place. Having a good design system actually improves your employer brand and makes it easier, and more attractive, to hire innovative talent.

A good design system brings you closer to your users

A good design system is the future. All organisations should be putting one in place – and the sooner the better. But it’s not going to be comfortable or easy to put it in place. That’s why I recommend that you start with a pilot programme. This allows you to show results. And results drive adoption.

A design system provides you with information you would never have had without a coherent way of allowing self-organised teams to release applications to their users as fast as possible. With a good design system, applications can be developed in hours, not weeks.

When this is working well, it drives change within organizations because, once a good design system shows its power it gets buy-in, easily, from both the organization and management to continue on that journey.

The only question now is: how will you show the power of self-organised teams once you’ve put a good design system in place? With a design system in place you amplify the power of innovation, the power of collecting feedback from users, and the ability to drive change by showing results. But it’s only powerful once you start using it.

To get started, find out how a design system can work for you

If you’re not convinced, talk to people. Find out about what a design system can and should do. (For example, you can listen to our DevOps Sauna podcast interview on design systems and DevOps).

If you are convinced or need help convincing others – talk to us. We can help you put the right design system in place for your organization.

Published: Dec 13, 2021

DevOpsDesign and UX