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Four Challenges Facing Design System Leaders and How to Solve Them

In 2024, Knapsack launched the Design Systems Leadership Summit, a half-day gathering of product, development, and design professionals looking to connect, share, and learn from each other. So far, we’ve held five summits and we’ve noticed a few key themes emerging. Here are four of the challenges design system leaders are facing right now. 

What metrics should I use to demonstrate design system value?

One of the biggest concerns we hear from design system leaders is the need to drive and measure adoption. Why? Because adoption numbers are easy to get and easy to understand, and because people assume that the value of a tool can be measured through the number of people using it. As one attendee pointed out, “We survived a round of layoffs because our design system is so widely used”. However, the value of a design system is not truly captured by adoption metrics, and teams are hungry for better options that show ROI and bottom-line value. 

At Knapsack, we often look at production cycle time as an alternative measure of the value a design system provides because it is generally easy to measure and because product cycle time is directly tied to the value a design system generates for product teams and organizations in terms of ROI – particularly in terms of cost savings. The focus on helping teams accelerate digital production and reduce cycle time is why Knapsack focuses on the dynamic connection between design and code, allowing teams to prototype with production ready components, reducing the time it takes to go from concept to shippable product

Adoption and production cycle time are just two ways the design system community is currently thinking about design system value. At every event we held there was a hunger for and anxiety about how best to measure the effectiveness and value of design systems. Ultimately, we believe the value of a design system should be measured by the product outcomes it enables. Teams are starting to point at measures like improved accessibility ratings, conversation rates, or even end-user sentiment. These outcome based measures resonate more with executive leaders and are generally more effective at conveying the value of a design system program.

How do I get the most from my design system?

Five years ago, most organizations had no idea what a design system was, but today almost every medium to enterprise-level company has some form of system in place. The conversation has evolved from “what is it” to “how do I make it work”? 

As systems mature, it’s important to evolve both tools and the team to support new, more productive  ways of working. Unfortunately, the reality of the tooling space is that most platforms focus on enabling one team or part of a system workflow, creating a disjointed stack and multiple ‘sources of truth.’ Motivated teams often invest additional effort into either closing the gaps between tools with “glue code” or building their own tools entirely. Both approaches are error prone, time and cost intensive, and steal attention away from critical decisions and deliverables that are unique to the specific organization. Within 2-5 years, the vast majority of these teams restart or refactor their system - if it isn’t abandoned altogether. 

Teams looking to capitalize on the opportunity of design systems at scale need modern, integrated infrastructure that connects all the ways their design system is managed, referenced, tested, used, and experienced in products. Removing points of failure and providing scalable infrastructure creates immediate benefit by uniting sources of truth and removing expectation gaps. Once unified infrastructure is in place, teams are able to modernize how they work by connecting the design and product planning process directly to the engineering workflows that deliver end user experiences. That is exactly what we built Knapsack to do. Knapsack reduces or eliminates that need for manual documentation maintenance, supports rapid prototyping with production ready code, allows for democratized contribution and collaboration between teams, supports multi-brand management, and helps design systems leaders ensure the integrity of their system while accelerating the production capabilities of the product teams they serve.

Tools alone don’t make teams successful. But tools can support ways of working that avoid the human challenges that make cross-functional collaboration - in any context - a challenge. Getting people to align their goals and vision requires design system leaders to be the connective tissue in their organizations. A common theme that emerged from conversations around alignment was the importance of working with those who are willing to work with you and using that success to build momentum with others. Having the right tool is important to establish and scale demonstrable success, but building the relationships and trust to make it work always come first.

What is the role of AI in my design system?

The hottest topic in tech, AI questions and concerns are ever present at the design system summits. Many attendees said that their organizations were demanding that they find ways of using AI in their work, a ”solution looking for a problem” approach to the AI question. Others expressed concerns about their jobs being eliminated by advances in AI and Machine Learning. Regardless of the individual concern, everyone is asking “what is the role of AI in a design system.”

At the Seattle meeting, Jacob Miller, Principal Product Manager - Generative AI & Design Systems at Figma offered a view of AI as an enabler instead of a replacement. His vision is of AI taking on the repetitive and mundane tasks that consume so much designer and developer energy, allowing teams to focus on creativity and quality. This view of AI as an enabler of human creativity is echoed in a recent podcast Knapsack CEO, Chris Strahl did with Dave Calleja, Head of Design at Merkle and dentsu in Australia-New Zealanda. In their discussion Dave says,

“The idea that you sort of press a button and a website is generated by scanning everything that's available on the Internet and sort of looking at the aggregate, that's a dark future. But there's many possible very bright futures where the designers, the developers, the copywriters, the creatives that are…standing at the levers of this incredibly powerful machine and controlling how it consumes that kibble and saying, now that you've got all of this energy, I'm going to guide you on what to do… So it's not just about letting the AI loose and then creating whatever it is and having no control over that. It's about empowering those same people, those same minds, about tweaking the model, about tweaking the input, tweaking the structured data… to create something that is meaningful and creative on the other side, and then still being able to manipulate it at faster than light speed compared to today.”

The team at Knapsack generally views AI as a positive tool that, if harnessed well, can seriously improve the experiences product teams put into the world. The newness of AI makes it difficult to say with certainty how design systems should harness it but design teams have the greatest likelihood of realizing the bright future Dave and Jacob imagine by taking a proactive role in crafting the answer. A few helpful tips have emerged from our summits.

  1. Educate yourself and your team on how to use prompts and get as comfortable as you can using the technology. It’s hard to envision the future if you don’t understand what you are working with.
  2. Do your best to set some basic guiding principles of how you think your design system should use AI and review them quarterly. This technology is changing rapidly and it’s important to adapt as the technology matures.
  3. Help executives see AI as an enabler by crafting the narrative for them. Share your adoption plan, publicly celebrate successes that involve AI enablement, and be thoughtful in how you speak about AI.

We don’t know how this story will go yet, but our chances of working with AI successfully improve if we take an active role in answering that question. 

How do I balance the need of my design system with the needs of product teams that use it?

One of the biggest challenges for design system leaders is how to protect the integrity of a system while meeting the needs of their end users, product teams - especially when working with dozens or hundreds of brands and properties. Chris Strahl spoke about this problem at many of the summits, highlighting Knapsack’s ‘systems of systems’ approach to help design system leaders solve it. 

“Design systems have a lot of competing priorities, and they’re constantly changing. Foundational systems need to be stable and robust, but there is also the need to iterate at the speed of product feedback. Those seem fundamentally incompatible until you consider where you would intentionally introduce a breakpoint in your system. Typically, most systems-of-systems approaches are in three levels, with each inheriting information from the system above it. The “top” being a single system that holds the basic foundational choices. These move and evolve slowly, and serve the greatest horizontal user need. Then, at the “bottom” are product systems. These predominantly house composed patterns of foundational components that serve a specific product need (think about a complex form vs just an input and label). These systems are rapidly changing and evolving, and they serve the narrowest need. Finally, there is a “middle” system where foundations meet themes, patterns, and product contributions. This middle layer assembles useful pattern examples from foundations and elevates the work happening in product systems for broader use.”

The foundational concepts for building a connected hierarchy of systems and libraries - with nesting, inheritance, and all the relationships you imagine - are well-tested in the world of engineering. But, to date, it’s been nearly impossible for most teams to align their tooling and workflows upstream to this technical dependency model. With Knapsack’s integrated infrastructure model, teams can finally match how they work to how they build and deliver digital brand experiences across complex ecosystems.

You’re not alone

There are always many other topics raised during our summits, but regardless of the questions attendees come in with, everyone leaves with a fresh energy to find answers. The design system space - and even the digital production space at large - is still so young. Ideas and standards are evolving rapidly. Few have seen massive success, much less repeated it. The goal of the Design System Leadership Summits is to create a space for design system leaders to connect and help each other think through shared challenges and opportunities, to find the best way forward for their unique context. It’s wonderful to walk away from these events knowing that you are not alone, and that the future is bright.

Learn more about the Design Systems Leadership summit and attend one of our upcoming events.

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