During periods of high growth, your design, product, and engineering teams work quickly to release new features to support a growing user base. Unfortunately, when teams move quickly, keeping a consistent UX across the entire product can be challenging, especially if you don’t have a design system.
At first, design systems may seem restrictive. You might be thinking – Spending the time to create a design system will slow down feature releases. Why would I want to rely on one design system in perpetuity? My product needs more flexibility to cover future UI elements, some of which we don’t even know we need yet.
In actuality, a design system encourages innovation. Design systems allow you to focus on more critical UX issues that demand your attention. If you’re spending time creating new UI patterns from scratch rather than addressing a glaring user pain point, it’s time to shift your priorities.
Equal parts library and guiding voice, a design system helps make the invisible visible by centralizing institutional knowledge and documenting reusable patterns. A proper design system can evolve with your product, create consistency, and ultimately save you time and reduce friction amongst your team.
So what makes a great design system? First, let’s clear up a few misconceptions about design systems.
A design system isn’t a pattern library, but it does include it
There may be some confusion about what a design system is — in fact, many people confuse it with a pattern library. While a pattern library is undoubtedly foundational to a design system, they’re not synonymous. So here are the definitions spelled out.
- A pattern library is a collection of all reusable UI elements and patterns. It’s the building blocks for design, like the buttons and icons.
- A design system is all that and a bag of chips. It goes beyond the building blocks of a pattern library and provides design guidelines you can apply to future designs. It is a shared vocabulary, a point of view on design.
A solid design system must include both a pattern library and design guidelines to be effective.
Why does a design system need design guidelines in addition to a pattern library?
There are a few reasons why you should include a design guideline in your design system. Here are the major benefits.
It Maximizes Speed and Efficiency
When you iron out a design system, your designers and developers can move quickly and efficiently because they won’t waste time finding and recreating each UI component. For example, why create a button from scratch if you already have one? Likewise, if you’ve documented design guidelines, you won’t need to rehash a discussion on the hover states or when to use a secondary button.
It Reduces User Friction
Inconsistencies are major culprits of usability issues. Think of it as death by 1,000 papercuts: your user may be unaware that your icons and buttons look different from each other or that forms interact differently on different screens. But enough inconsistencies in your UI will introduce friction into the user experience and eventually erode user trust altogether.
A design system ensures you reuse the same UI elements, unifying the overall experience and reducing user friction. There won’t be 50 shades of gray — literally. Instead, there will be five shades of gray that can be reused for multiple purposes. From the user’s perspective, UI elements will feel visually cohesive and behave in predictable ways. A consistent user experience is one of the most powerful methods to establish user trust.
You Can Focus on the Experience Design
A design has millions of micro-decisions baked into it: deciding on the type of information displayed, the flow of information, and how to display the information on a screen. When you eliminate some of those decisions with a reliable design system, it unlocks space for you and your team to design, debate, and explore more significant UX problems.
Creating a Design System That’s “Just Right”
First things first: design systems are an investment. It takes time to audit your current experience and make an inventory of UI components. Then you have to document decisions about the UI components and create a strategy to design and implement the new system. Platforms, in particular, can have an extensive list of elements to cover. It can feel daunting to document such a multitude of components.
Not to mention, you need to hit the sweet spot in complexity. If you create a bloated design system, you risk it being too complex to use. On the other hand, if you make a bare-bones system, it will leave too much open to interpretation to be helpful. Your design system should be flexible so that it can continue to be added to as your product matures. It’s the Goldilocks “Just Right” you need to build complex platforms.
What Design Systems Include
A Library of UI Components and Patterns
As previously mentioned, pattern libraries are an essential part of any design system. It contains the building blocks of your platform, which include UI components like:
- Icons and images
- Input controls
- Layout grids
Patterns use these building blocks to create more significant components for complex workflows. These can include:
- Errors and validation
Visual and Content Guidelines
Visual guidelines document design decisions and the overall approach to design. They help create consistency for decisions like grid usage, type scale, curve radius, typographic casing, accessibility, and color usage in your product. In addition, the tone of voice helps establish how the UI will talk to the user. For example, are you an exclamation point type of product, or are you succinct and direct? These guidelines help offset the risk of user “death by papercuts” by keeping things predictable and user-friendly.
The experience principles are guidelines that help shape the direction of your product based on the type of experience you want to deliver to the user. They weave the business vision and strategy into the product’s design. For example, do you prioritize speed and density, or will your experience be a companion and guide? Experience principles help teams make decisions to create a streamlined and focused experience.
A Solid Design System is the Foundation for Creating Engaging Products
If you don’t have an efficient design system in place, your product might as well be DOA. Your team shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time your product needs an update. Especially because starting from scratch just means you’re creating more opportunities for design inconsistencies. Not only that, but you’re diverting everyone from solving important UX issues.
When you create a design system, you provide your team with everything it needs to build great products. Reducing your product team’s friction ultimately reduces your user’s friction too. Create a streamlined experience for everybody.