Do you really need a design system?

Design systems address the heartache of designing at scale & hence, they are most suited for products in the Growth & Maturity stages of the product lifecycle.

Design System, an answer to the heartache of designing at scale.

Design System is a meaningful bundle of well-documented pattern libraries where an ecosystem of interconnected patterns and shared practices live.

A system doesn’t need to have every single pattern library to be crowned the title of ‘design system’ but there seems to be a threshold that we won’t go into in this article. The needs of the product inform what the system has to have.

Disclaimer: There is a fair bit of generalisation ahead to keep things simple and avoid digression.

Having a coherent design makes the customer experience seamless & amplifies brand recall. But holding on to consistency becomes increasingly hard as the product scales up. A design system is a solution to exactly this heartache of designing at scale. It makes consistency, convenient.

Design System manages three major challenges of scaling up:

  1. A design system makes consistency, convenient for mature products
    Mature products are the ones that have reached saturation or are approaching it. Given the sheer scale of mature products, maintaining consistency without any structure becomes an almost impossible goal. Design system establishes a common language that can work across functions making the impossible, possible.
  2. With big teams, having processes & shared language becomes undeniably important
    As the product scales up, the need for resources skyrockets. The team size explodes & suddenly maintaining a sense of shared language & context becomes painstakingly difficult. This is where the design system provides a single source of truth, one language to ‘speak.’
  3. Children Products enjoy the system benefits of the parent product
    Products often tend to have children products as they mature which silently makes the parent product complex with its varied design patterns. The benefits enjoyed by a giant established product with a sound design system & processes will invariably trickle down to all its child products. e.g. Gojek
Bigger the heartache of scale, bigger & more varied are the benefits of having a design system.
Product Lifecycle curve with an arrow showing when scaling begins
Source for Product Lifecycle

A given product moves through the product life cycle during its lifetime. The product life cycle begins when the product is launched into the market and ends when the product reaches end-of-life and is taken off the shelves, physically or virtually.

Since the design system is a strong answer to the challenges of scaling, its benefits are experienced disproportionately high in stages where scale is a burning problem.

Style Guides suffice for most young products in their product lifecycle.

Minimum Viable Prototypes and Young products, in their infancy who are seeking their first 1000 users, don’t benefit justifiably by creating a design system unless they are adopting an existing one. Their priority is usually to find a Product Market Fit (PMF) first, all else can come later.

Design systems need considerable one-time effort to create & constant dedicated time and resources to maintain. Creating a full-fledged design system very quickly becomes an unnecessary burden especially when resources are in short supply given the lean, agile teams. Furthermore, the significant challenges of designing for scale are still miles away for young products.

Check out this article “Why design systems may not always be suited to startups” for more.

Adolescent Products are ripe to reap the many benefits of having a design system.

Adolescent products, having achieved PMF (Product-Market Fit), and newfound business confidence in their growing user base are ripe to immensely benefit by having a design system. This is when the product starts to become sophisticated with new funding inflow & teams start to explode.

Increasing team size makes maintaining context suddenly painstakingly difficult & productivity gains remain insignificant. Inconsistencies in the interface become prominent with a greater awareness of repeated development efforts that could be saved. Efficiency gradually becomes the priority.

These & many other newly discovered challenges of scaling make it the perfect time to invest in the design system. A design system is precisely an answer to these challenges & adds immense value by establishing a single source of institutional truth.

Mature Products become lean & agile with design systems.

Mature products are the ones that have reached saturation or are approaching it. If the user base is huge & multinational, they usually have multiple designs and tech teams which is where the design system can add tremendous value by providing a common language. For mature products to stay relevant and keep the future bright, they need a constant push for innovation. Established Design systems can aid in running quick and controlled product experiments and facilitate seamless integration of the successful ones back into the core product. However, often the initial effort of implementing & adopting a design system for a mature product may be discouragingly huge as legacy processes & practices may resist change.

Businesses rarely invest extra energy & resources in aged products, so introducing a design system at this stage rarely brings considerable gains.

Got more questions? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Written by Raunaq with ❤️ — a Product/Systems designer based in Bengaluru, India.

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