Design systems are a service: how to keep your customers happy

At Atlassian in the Design Systems team, we’ve started thinking about the design system we build and maintain as a service. But who are the consumers of this service? And what do they want (and need).

In this presentation, I’ll look at how we dig deeply into who the consumers of our systems are, and some of the things we’ve done (some that worked, others that didn’t) in meeting their needs.

During Alex’s interview process she asked a lot about the way design was valued at Atlassian. The history of design at Atlassian was chequered, but when Alex joined they had set up the ADG – Atlassian Design Guidelines. The aha moment is that design systems elevate the value of design. She was sold and joined.

What Alex was fascinated by when she joined was the way the design system had been designed to evolve. A design system is not a Sketch file.

Design systems are a collection of rules, constraints, and principles, implemented in design and code. – Sylvee L

They held a workshop to define some brand principles:

  • Bold
  • Optimistic
  • Practical, with a wink

They were able to agree – eventually – on colours and typography, illustration and writing style. This also led to the new logos and Charlie Sans font. They also managed to hammer out detente with marketing, agreeing on common foundations.

With leadership buy-in, they were able to drive the ultimate holy grail: adoption. The new style was actually rolled out across products.

But they weren’t really done. Products had taken the new design the same way people took medicine. There was a lot of hard-coding and overrides going on.

A design system is not a project, it’s a product for products.

They were a large team, about 22 just on ADG, but there were hundreds of engineerings in about 150 teams. They all wanted stuff.

A design system is nothing if your team can’t use it well. – Sarah Federman

They moved from a product for products, to a service for people.

Design systems are about culture and mindset – and that’s hard when the culture is shipping. So they did a ton of user research on designers and developers inside Atlassian. They invested in the community and education in how to actually use the ADG. Given the scale of Atlassian, it was important to make it possible to onboard at scale. They also invested in design tools, instead of letting it trickle along in 20% time (now it’s three people working on it).

They were able to come up with a number on “design hours saved” – they measured designers on hours taken with and without the tooling, then multiplied that out.

This has been a journey over time. The pressures and needs have changed as the years went on and that’s natural. Your design system needs to evolve as the company grows and evolves.

Their current mindset is to make it easy for people to create distinctly Atlassian designs.

If you focus on having a design system as a goal, you will fail. Think about the problem you need to solve.

@skougs | Alex’s slides