Podcast

Using one design system to manage dozens of products with Intuit's Leonardo De La Rocha

Leonardo De La Rocha and Chris discuss the “federated” design system model, how to connect design systems to business needs, designing friction-free cross-platform experiences, and C-suite awareness of design needs.

About our guest: Lonardo De La Rocha is an engineer turned pixel-pusher turned creative executive and adviser. He currently serves as Director of Intuit Design System in Mountain View, CA, and was previously creative director leading Facebook's art department and business marketing surfaces  and Yahoo's Head of Design for ads and publishing products. You can find Leonardo at his portfolio site, on Twitter as @delarocha, as a mentor on ADPList, and on LinkedIn

Chris:

Hey, today I'm talking with Leonardo De La Rocha. Leonardo is the director of the Intuit Design System. Welcome to the program. Glad to have you.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Hey, so happy to be here. Thank you, Chris.

Chris:

So we're going to be talking today about the structure of your design system team, how you built that team and what really the team side of it looks like, and how that culture has also spread through this really unique and interesting governance model you have. And I'm going to also try to talk that into some of the pre-show conversation we were having around diversity and communities and how we support that diversity through design thinking. Really excited to have you on. Honestly, it's been a long time coming. Our initial conversations about the podcast were super exciting, so glad to have you here.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, thanks and yeah, I think due to COVID and all of the coordination extras that are necessary, it took a while to get here, but really happy to finally share our story and give you a little bit of insight into how the design system is nuanced at a really large multi-product company like Intuit.

Chris:

Yeah, so I think that the most interesting part of this whole thing is you guys have an extremely federated approach, I would say, to the way you think about your design system. So talk to me a little bit about that. How does this team structure work to build this system that supports... how many products? Like, a couple dozen?

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah. Exactly. I mean, we have at least four cornerstone brand massive products and then a bunch of services that roll up into them, so it is a pretty massive product landscape that we deal with. And you're right, we're federated in the sense that we have one design system that is IDS, short for Intuit Design System, but we have multiple themes and design system teams that support those themes scattered across the entire platform.

Chris:

Yeah, so the way that that takes form for you guys is an essential system, but then you give a lot of that ownership of that system to that individual product team. Talk a little bit about what that looks like.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, that's right, and that's a really intentional thing that we do. We feel strongly that the best design systems, and certainly IDS, is that it's best when you have real representation of the product use cases. Oftentimes at large companies you'll have a centralized design system or design system team and you lose some of the nuance and the details that come from the customer's needs. So by making sure that we have representation from within what we call the BUs, the business units, always hyper-focused on what the customer needs are and then bringing that information, those use cases, those needs, into the central IDS mechanism, we're able to service our customers at a really healthy way.

Chris:

Yeah, so why did you think about the structure in that more federated sense versus the, I guess, I don't know if it's traditional at this point or not, the more centralized model, where there is that tight control over that central team?

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, I think for one, it makes ratification and actually shipping shared experiences a lot easier. So if you have multiple design systems, and we call them embedded designers, they're funded by my organization, but they actually live within the business unit. You're able to secure the sense of, "Our customers are being thought of, our customers are being cared about." And so there's a lot of trust established when that embedded designer comes to the broader team setting and says, "Hey, here's what we need to solve for in QuickBooks," for example. They educate the broader design system team on that use case. We're able to poke and probe and make sure that we can solve for it. Then, when they go back to their QuickBooks team and say, "Hey, we've solved for this at IDS, here's what it looks like," that knowledge, coming from the QuickBooks, team is embedded.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

So you don't get a lot of pushback with the way that we're set up. We have very senior design systems players solving these things, and when they go back to their team to show the solution or where we landed, it always just goes over a little more smoothly.

Chris:

Gotcha. So from a practical standpoint, like taking your QuickBooks example, so QuickBooks starts with IDS and then they have their own particular customer needs, and those customer needs are owned by that QuickBooks team. But there is somebody from that central design system team, and what I mean by "from" there, meaning being funded from there, that is actually embedded with that QuickBooks team on a day-to-day basis, helping them implement use, and then sharing that knowledge from the design system.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, that's right. And just to give you, maybe a concrete example of how that works in real life, we might have a selection box that is used a certain way in TurboTax and that's in our CG group, our consumer group. And then that same component might be used slightly differently in QuickBooks. When there's that intentional divergence, those two folks who really didn't have any reason to talk before, are now able to connect through IDS and say, "Well, why is this different? Why does this need to look and feel or function any differently?" And most of the time, those two very seasoned knowledgeable designers will actually get to one pattern or one solution or one shared component.

So the other special thing about being federated is you're bringing expertise from different parts of the ecosystem, but you're allowing for more alignment when it's appropriate by bringing those teams together. So yes, sometimes things do have to stay nuanced and they have to be specific for a use case, and that that happens often, but in the instances where they look at the same pattern and they're able to get to a convergence on things, is where we see a lot of magic and where we see a lot of [inaudible 00:05:42], because then you're removing code debt, you're removing design debt, and you're actually streamlining the amount of places and things designers have to look at to solve.

Chris:

Yeah, that's really powerful. One of the hardest parts, I guess, of adoption is that that feeling of still needing to be able to color outside the lines a little bit, and that idea that like, "Oh, you know, hey, we have a system that's being forced on us. We have to work within the confines of a system," and nobody likes to be told what to do. And so the empowerment that you give people to modify things, but then also have that conversation in the context of the more global ecosystem, that seems like a powerful way of pushing back against resistance and also, ultimately, the fragmentation of your design system.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, I think that's right. And on top of that, Chris, there's also this... we have a layered approach to ratifying or approving or getting to adoption of our components. So the BU embedded designers is like the first layer of that. They're on the ground, they're assessing the use cases and they're solving amongst themselves, and they actually get alignment. And we have, at this point, maybe six embedded designers across our platform, representing six business units. The work doesn't stop there. That alignment, once they are all on the same page and they work together, they actually go a layer up to what we call the IDSBU leadership layer, and these are creative director types and design system leaders at a higher level that are able to review and critique and probe and try to poke holes in the solution to get alignment.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

And then that layer, once it's blessed and everyone feels good about it, you don't have to go up to another layer of approval, which we used to do. We now can go up to a higher level, our three design VPs, and basically celebrate all the work. So it's no longer... We've removed this stigma of, "All right, we've got to show it to the three VPs and let's hope they love it." It's like, no, we all love it. we're removing a lot of that reviewed need. We're going to the leaders to get a line of sight, but ultimately it's just to celebrate the win, to celebrate what we solved for. So the governance is almost more natural in that sense, where we're not dictating top-down what things need to look like, we're working on it together across the platform as a team, and then taking it up to celebrate it at the end.

Chris:

I also love that. I think that there's so much stress and stigma about the creative review process with that VP level stakeholder, where oftentimes, and I'm sure that there's the odd design VP that listens to this podcast, but oftentimes that VP is just in that room to assert authority and not really to respect the hard work that has gone on lower down in that process. That participatory action of, "Hey, we as practitioners and as experts have come together, gotten alignment, decided what the right design pattern here is to do. Now, we're doing this as we're bringing this to our leadership to show off that amazing work and then to celebrate that together as this triumph for the furthering of a design methodology and thinking inside the organization.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, and it's really to celebrate a triumph for the platform. One of the things that Intuit is really keen on is making the move for our customers from one product to the next as friction-free as possible, with minimal relearning. So we shouldn't have new icons that mean the same thing from product... So when you, when you're able to go up and, and celebrate that, you're basically giving these VPs the ammunition to go to even higher, like our CEO and say, "Look. Look how unified our product is." And we're not doing this tops down. It's all organic, it's all natural. It's all grassroots. There's something really healthy about that, and I love empowering our leaders to be able to go to even higher up product leadership to say, "This is how we've solved it."

Chris:

Yeah. So, I mean, you guys have folks at that C level and VP level that are very intimately aware of the design system and how it's used?

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, and this is... I've got to give credit to my boss and he's the senior vice president of design at Intuit, Kurt Walecki, he's created a sense of a single design organization with Sasan, our CEO. And we're not a centralized design team where we have a design leader, a VP in each of our three major segments, but we, for the first time last month, we basically showed Sasan, our CEO, an end to end view of our ecosystem, including the design system portion and including a really clear view of what all of our shared experiences.

Chris:

That's awesome. I think that you hear a lot about design having a seat at the table when it comes to strategic decision making inside of the company. Having the CEO be aware of the design ecosystem and landscape at a company like Intuit, I think that presents it as a competitive strength, the idea that, strategically, design as a part of your product strategy, seems like a very powerful message.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

It is, and I think it's next level Intuit. I feel most companies I've worked at, and I've worked at two very large companies prior to Intuit, we often talked about design having a seat at the table. It's just kind of table stakes, if you will, for Silicon Valley, but at Intuit, to be able to share and talk about and let leaders probe and ask questions, and even get educated on design systems, and reasonable components and topics like design tokens, is pretty rad. So I agree with you. I think it's a competitive advantage for a company like Intuit. We're the incumbents. We're 30 years old. We've been around a long time, but that ability where everyone sees design and talks about it the same way is what is allowing us to stay ahead of the startups who could be faster, might have younger, more vibrant teams, but we're able to stay ahead of that just because of that transparency with what design is, what product is, what engineering is and how they all fit together.

Chris:

When it comes to the way you guys think about that design leadership, that design presence in an organization and design, is that advantage over those young upstart whippersnapper startup companies. When you think about the name of this ecosystem or how you call it, is there a model you guys have devised for this that is pretty universal then, and that's kind of the framework that exists for this? I'm trying to think about something that our listeners could go see or read or learn about that could help them adopt a similar sense of thinking inside of their organization.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

There's layers to it, but I think, foundationally, we subscribe and we've created our version of fixed and flexible, just so that everyone at the company understands what to play with more frequently and what to kind of be hands-off in and trust that it's been solved for. And we call that framework durable and adaptable, and there's a Medium write-up that gives a high level of why we chose durable and adaptable over fixed and flexible. But one of the things that I like to call out is "fixed" has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, especially in a startup environment, or any tech environment. "Fixed" is basically telling your designers, "Don't mess with this. Just leave it alone." But if you say it's durable, you're hinting that, "Yeah, we don't change it often, but we change it. Absolutely."

Leonardo De La Rocha:

And so by saying, we have a set of durable components or durable design token values, we're signaling out to the design community, "Yes, everything should be iterated on." It's just in a different cadence or with a different process. And that leads to the second layer of what we've created at Intuit, and that is an IDS approval framework. We've created a culture where anyone at the company, if you're working on something that you think might be reused across more than one product, take it to IDS. And we've gotten that top-down support to make sure that if you're working on an ecosystem solution, it comes through the IDS process.

Chris:

So anybody, no matter who they are inside of the organization, can push something into that IDS process and make a contribution?

Leonardo De La Rocha:

That's exactly right, and it goes for things at a foundational level, like invisible to the end user customer, like the shape and radius and elevation of a card. That is a durable component. Those are durable attribute values, but if you're a hot shit designer and you just got hired at Mint, and you've redesigned this beautiful new amorphic card, we want that, but we want that for the entire platform. So the IDS process makes it easy for, even those nudges on durable components and durable elements, to come through and get ratified in a healthy way.

Chris:

So we've talked about this a little bit on the podcast before, but one of the things that I view as a big untapped value of design systems, is that innovation sharing. Most of the time, when we talk about design systems, in the same breath, we're talking about maintainability and accessibility and the ability to govern and control a change. But I think in that last bit, in that governance model of controlling a change, you're not just talking about the change you want to make. You're talking about sharing and spreading the innovation that you're creating in one group. So something goes and happens on Mint that is really valuable and powerful, you want to bring that to your other products in your ecosystem in that same way. You don't want that to just live on Mint.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

That's right. Yeah, and I think one of the beauties of the way that we're set up in that governance, where we have BU embedded designers and a IDSBU leadership layer, when that new hotness is introduced in one product suite and it's brought up through IDs, because we want it to be shared, we have this built-in reinforcement with the IDSBU leaders where they're saying... they can then go back out to their segment or their business unit and say, "Hey, look at this new, awesome thing. Here's how it can benefit us. Let's talk about how we can get this adopted into your product." And so there's this built-in layer of advocacy at the leadership layer, not at the designer layer, so that you can actually move faster with authority and getting these things implemented.

Chris:

Right, so it's all about removing friction and improving the communication in that process instead of being a hurdle or a gate.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, that's exactly right.

Chris:

Yeah, that's awesome. I think that that gives you guys just this really cool ecosystem. It's funny. It reminds me a lot of open-source communities I've been a part of, where you sit there and you think about like, "Okay, so there's still control on how all this stuff changes, but there's also not a lot of sacred cows here." There's a set of standards you have to meet and ideology you have to get behind, which is well captured in your principles, but from there anybody can make a contribution.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly it. And we have this really healthy saying at Intuit, and this is echoed by leaders, it's echoed by product managers, by engineers in that, everyone contributes and everyone subscribes. And that mantra just makes it very real. It was like, "It's your design system. It's not a design system. It belongs to you." So yeah, contribute to it, take from it, but also give to it and make sure that you're replenishing it when it needs to be from your perspective and your expertise and your solutions.

Chris:

Yeah. Y'all are kind of gardening together. I love it. So thinking about that kind of gardening concept, before the show, we were talking about communities and how communities are changing from COVID and the concerns that both of us share around our own places that we live and the changes that we face here. And I think that a big part of that conversation was around diversity, in that we want to live in diverse communities, not just in our professional lives, but in our personal lives as well. And one of the things you brought up that I thought was really cool was Intuit's approach to design and diversity, and the thing you said that really struck me is that design thinking is for everybody. Like, you need to have an ethos that ties you to your customers and meets them where they're at, instead of just always trying to move them up a funnel. And so I'm kind of curious to hear how that plays out for you in your job.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, that's a great question. I think design systems, in general, are a great way to facilitate moving people around any ecosystem with less friction, because you're providing reasonable elements, you're minimizing how much needs to be relearned or learned from scratch, and you're creating this like really familial and familiar sense as you're going through, as you're traversing from one product to the next, or even one platform to the next, because that happens a lot with our customers. Like, they're on desktop to do their taxes, but then they're going to their handheld device to check up on Mint.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

So the way this hits close to home for me at work is that our design system and the way that we work allows even the ideas that might be specific to a consumer, like in Mint, get reused and get evaluated for use and other products for, let's say, a small business or a self-employed person, a gig worker. And there's this sense of democratizing access to financial knowledge and financial growth and understanding how to build sustained wealth at every level. And so we were no longer going to have, I think the future for Intuit is, we're no longer going to have a single product that helps you build sustainable wealth or helps you save money smarter or helps you pay down debt. It's going to be the entire ecosystem that's helping our customers do that in different ways, from a small business lens or from a consumer lens. And the design system, to kind of bring it back to it, is with the shared experiences and the shared knowledge and the components, is what's going to allow our products to feel more familial and tied together when necessary.

Chris:

It's really interesting because you brought up gig workers and the new economy. I mean, we are, especially because of COVID, been thrust into this new economic order. And then I was telling you, like, most of my friends are chefs and bartenders, because I live in Portland and there's a lot of chefs and bartenders, and a lot of those people have not had a job for more than a year. And so thinking about how you reach those people in the same way that you would reach a tech worker in San Jose, or a CEO of a software startup in Portland, I love the idea of having an ecosystem that works for everybody and using a product model to support that diversity of thought around, "Hey, wealth management tools aren't just for like you and I. They're for everybody inside of this ecosystem."

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, that's right. And different customers need it at different times. And I feel like a powerful design system, like the one that we're trying to build at Intuit, is going to be able to pick up signal if you're a gig worker and you're doing your taxes, in that moment of understanding that they might be struggling or they might owe too much in back taxes, or maybe they haven't been managing their money, to pull in pieces from Mint or from Credit Karma to help them get better and to teach them and educate, that's the magic of it. That's what I'm really excited about.

Chris:

So when you think about how you actually go from this distributed, federated, open source-y sort of model, and you wind through that decision pathway, I want to understand how this is enabling and empowering at every step in that decision making process. So where does it start? Maybe that's a great place to begin.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, I think that'd be a really cool thing to share just because it's pretty unique, and I don't think that I've worked this way at any other company, but the decision space kind of looks like this where you'll you'll have something that we know needs to be shared across the platform, a component or a pattern of any kind, and we'll actually get our embedded designers, our IDSBU embedded designers, to come together to look at that problem together, so that you're bringing in these nuanced perspectives from each of the business units, obviously echoing each of the customer needs, to make sure that you're landing on a solid perspective of solution for this one component. And they do all the hard work. They're going out and stress testing against the different products. They're doing the placements and the flows to make sure that it gels well. And then that BU embedded designer layer brings it up to a council that, the council I mentioned called the IDSBU leadership later.

Chris:

So who's on that council?

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Yeah, great question. It's a collection of senior managers and design managers and directors from, again, each of the business units. So usually it might be a, in two cases, design systems managers for QuickBooks and for our CG group, consumer group. And then in other cases, it's different segments, like our virtual expert platform is represented in that mix and Mint has a specific representation in that mix, but these are design leaders who are used to doing design crits, but they're also really good at critiquing with an ecosystem mindset. So we're very thoughtfully pulling together folks with that systems thinking ability, ecosystem lens on things, to basically review and approve the work that the BU embedded designers have been doing.

Chris:

Awesome. So you go from that BU layer to this leadership layer, and then once that leadership layer effectively says, "Yeah, this is awesome." How does that change then get committed into the design system? Like, at this point it's still a draft or a unsubmitted change or something like that, but what does it actually look like to get it into the system?

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Well, by the time that the BU leadership layer approves it, let's say, or gets alignment with the BU embedded designers, that's where the buck stops. It's done. It's basically finished, approved, stress tested, and everyone feels good about it, but it still does go to a session that we call IDR, the Intuit design review, and it's essentially our three design VPs. And we go to them to show them the work, we start from scratch showing here's the problem, here's the data, here's how we iterated, here's how we got to the solution, here's what the BU leader said, and here's what we changed about it, but now we want to show you the done awesome thing and we show it in action. And they basically have an opportunity to push back and challenge, they usually don't, because of all the great work that's already been done, and it turns into a celebration.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

So IDRs are more of a celebration of the work that's happened, but it does ratify it. And from there, those VPs actually support us by going to their product and engineering counterparts within their BUs to say, "This is done. Here's the timeline proposed. Please get it into your roadmaps." And that's an awesome thing that's built into the way we work, because it guarantees implementation from a very senior level perspective.

Chris:

That's interesting that that last step is literally like roadmap this. I think that that's a pretty remarkable way of pushing that adoption, and so the intent for that roadmapping conversation is to continue to have all of the products in the ecosystem remain aligned to IDS.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

That's exactly right.

Chris:

That's awesome. Well, hey, this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Really love the work you're doing. Really love the thinking. And yeah, we'd love to chat again and learn more about how things are going.

Leonardo De La Rocha:

Absolutely. Yeah, IDS continues to evolve and we're going to kind of keep trying new things and inventing new ways of making design systems awesome, so we'd love to come back and share more insight with you and all the listeners and how we're getting there.

Chris:

That's all for today. This has been another episode of the Design Systems podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any questions or a topic you'd like to know more about, find us on Twitter at the DSPod. We'd love to hear from you with show ideas, recommendations, questions, or comments. As always, this pod is brought to you by Knapsack. You can check us out at knapsack.cloud. Have a great day.