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Project Name   Building a Design System

 

 

The Team & My Role

Create a design system for a team of 30+ designers with the need for easy sharing to partners and delivery to development teams.

1 junior designer from each internal team, 3 in total.

1 developer, 1 designer and 1 project manager from an external team.

My role was strategy and design lead of our internal team and contributor and designer for our partnership with the external team.

The Challenge

After joining a new team, it became apparent we needed a repository of commonly used components, templates, logos and a reference for colors and sizing - we needed a design system. What started as a system for just my immediate team grew into a much larger effort that would eventually serve our whole organization. With large companies like HP, it can be difficult to make sweeping changes though, as every group has a different way of working. There are several product teams and organizations spread across locations and businesses and getting support and agreement from everyone can be a huge challenge. However, once I recognized this need for a change, I was able to gather the resources and support to make it happen. 

It had been clear for a long time that our team was in need of a design system. Designers were reinventing the wheel every time they began a new project and it was something that became apparent as you looked across our portfolio of work. Additionally, developers were receiving designs with inconsistent margins and varying components that made our hand-off process more complicated than necessary. It would create tension among the teams and was just overall inefficient. There were a number of issues that contributed to these inconsistencies across the team from different screen sizes to varying use of buttons and colors (even with an established brand palette). 

Ultimately, we needed a clear and scalable system to create polished products with a consistent look and feel. And we needed it yesterday. Up until this project, there had been several attempts at creating design systems and none of them had been successful due to the challenges of getting alignment across teams and leadership in a large, established company. Another issue that made it difficult was that these efforts would attract too many voices and varying perspectives made it hard to make progress. However, I was determined to take a different approach. 

“With the right strategy and resources, we implemented an entirely new design system that made our whole organization better.”

The Process

Build the right team for the job

With my immediate product team focused on our web services and offerings, I was examining all the ways in which our services were appearing across different platforms. 

Initially, I assumed this system I was building would be used only for my immediate design team, but as I started the work--I soon realized that in order to be successful, I would need to engage people from multiple teams so that we could build component libraries that would not only be accurate but would be relevant to all the teams and platforms where our services are offered. As a design team, we’re made up of teams that cover web experiences, the app, onboarding and hardware. As a result, our web services appear across many, if not all, of these different surfaces and touchpoints. To build a complete system, we’d need to build components that served all of these spaces. 

There were two key differences to my approach in building this design system and they ended up being crucial to our ability to move quickly and make progress where other attempts hadn’t. One was that I knew we needed to keep our efforts limited to a small, more tactical team rather than bring everyone interested on board. Instead, I selected one person from each product team to ensure we were accounting to each team’s specific need and keep those members accountable. With a smaller team, we could make decisions much faster but it also gave room for the team to bring their own ideas to the table and execute on them.

I also wanted to be sure that I chose high-level designers who could handle the additional workload and also had expertise in their area. As a result, everyone chosen had a unique perspective given the knowledge and experience in their specific product space and I learned quickly that collaborating and compromising were key skills to ensure this would work. A single person can’t own every single decision— and they shouldn’t. 

“Our core group worked together so well and I quickly learned that leading a team is more about supporting the players than telling them what to do or how to do it.”

Clearly and consistently communicate with management

Another key issue to address was getting alignment and support from management. Rather than sharing just a broad concept and direction, I decided that we should wait until the team had a complete schedule and thorough documentation showing that we had fully thought this through. I knew we had to make sure management was confident that my team could get this done. Communicating about our progress and creating a clear vision and schedule helped convince stakeholders that there was little need for concerns. Ultimately, I had built a strong case and everyone was on board. 

Seize the moment but be adaptable 

When you work at a large company, it can be difficult to switch gears or introduce a new process, but in this case there were some changes occurring in my own organization that made the timing feel right. We were actually in the process of transitioning design tools and I noticed that XD had a feature for a built-in design system. As this would already be a time of transitioning and learning, I felt like it was the perfect time to build a design system now that we had the tooling to support easy and convenient implementation.  

As the project developed further, I noticed that we would also need a process for how to implement future changes. We would need governance in order to create a process for making these changes smoothly and efficiently. I created a decision tree that would clearly outline the requirements and next steps for anyone who needed to make changes or updates to the existing patterns. By creating this, I could ensure that this system could scale beyond just my product needs and continue to be relevant and useful for the long term no matter how the team and products evolved.

Be prepared to scale

After building out a large portion of our design system, I learned that another team was beginning efforts to create a system that would be adopted across the entire company. I was asked to connect with them to discover what their goals were and launched conversations to discuss the parallels in our work and see how our current system might influence theirs. It took a lot of convincing and a lot of difficult conversations since they did not initially want to collaborate and build anything based on our team’s unique needs. At first, they were determined to build all their own components from scratch and without any input from our team. 

However, in an effort to compromise and not duplicate efforts, we landed on a solution that could utilize both systems in a way that provided value for everyone. I worked (and continue to work) closely with that team to represent my team and their needs. Now, the design system I built houses the components specific to print design where this other team ensures that our more generic components are consistent across the company.

“Our system was more agile and would serve as a transitional, more immediate solution while the company-wide system was still being developed.” 

The Solution

This project tested my leadership skills to their fullest extent as I created something from nothing, built a team, got alignment from leadership and carried out all the moving parts. This was one of my largest undertakings to date and it took an enormous amount of effort to get and maintain dedicated time and resources, acquire necessary feedback and approvals and consistently keep this as a priority in the minds of leadership. I expanded my reach and influence as a leader while also learning some great lessons about building and managing a team. 

 

Today, I still work closely with the other team that built the company-wide system and now lead efforts like facilitating a relationship with an agency to quickly build assets for all our platforms. I currently oversee the delivery of our latest components and work with an international team across several time zones to collaborate on the final stages of the project. 

“Our design system was built and implemented at a fairly rapid pace, solving all of our team’s immediate needs in a matter of months. We accomplished exactly what we set out to do.”