Product Thinking is a Lifeline for Struggling Design Systems
Here’s a common problem: a design team creates a design system. They craft beautiful documentation, crystal-clear guidelines, and meticulously organized files. But the design system never gains traction. Engineers don’t use it, and other designers quickly stop maintaining it. It fails to deliver the outcomes described in myriad case studies, blog posts, and conference talks. This has happened to me. If you’re a designer, it’s probably happened to you. The ubiquity of design systems is a double-edged sword. On one hand, designers have many examples to justify the need for a design system. On the other hand, it’s easy to take design systems for granted. Design systems often fail because we — their creators — don’t treat them like products. Using ideas and tools from product development, we can revive a struggling design system. Idea 1: Market analysis When building a new product, product managers often conduct something called market analysis. The goal of market analysis is to understand the opportunity at hand. Market analysis tries to answer the following questions: How many people use products like this today?How many people could potentially use this product in the future?What kinds of people use this product?What are the competitors in this market today?What will prevent a competitor from entering the market in the future? Doing market analysis helps product makers plan. If the market is large and relatively free of competition, it might make sense to go fast and take risks. If the market is smaller and more crowded, success might follow a slower, more careful path. Some markets are challenging to analyze. But if you’re working on a struggling design system, market analysis is relatively straightforward. Here are the questions you need to answer: 1. Is anyone at your company using a competing design system? If your company is small — fewer than 100 people — you can likely answer this question without any research. If your company is larger, do a quick round of investigating. A competing design system might be a formal, previous iteration in Sketch or Figma projects. It might be components from an external library like Material UI or Bootstrap used by developers. 2. How many people at your company could benefit from using your design system? Think big. Design systems aren’t just helpful to designers and developers; product managers, executive stakeholders, marketers, and strategists can all benefit from understanding your product through the lens of a design system. The key concept here is a total addressable market — this is an aspirational number, a long-term horizon for the success of the design system. 3. What kinds of people at your company might use your design system? Identify the categories of potential users. This is what’s called market segmentation, the process of dividing potential customers into groups. Your market segmentation might comprise front-end developers, designers, and content strategists. If you’re focused more narrowly on developers, your segmentation might consist of web, iOS, and Android developers. 4. If anyone is using a competing design system today, what is it? What does it do well? What does it do poorly? Having a competitor to study is a valuable opportunity. Survey the people at your company who use a design system and ask them about the strengths and weaknesses of the system. This information will not only help you build a better system, but will also define your market position, or the way you present your system as a superior alternative. A market analysis using these four questions serves as a foundation for the other decisions you’ll make. The size of your market gives you indications of the right…
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