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Unifying Design and Development: The Beacon Design System at T. Rowe Price

Alex Wilson interviewed by Richard Banfield on March 6, 2024.

Alex Wilson is the Vice President, Senior Design Systems Engineering Manager, at T. Rowe Price. He specializes in design system growth strategy, scalable engineering patterns, and fostering team innovation and culture

The quest for efficiency and unity between design and development teams has led many organizations to adopt comprehensive design systems. A notable example of this trend is T. Rowe Price's internal initiative, dubbed Beacon, which was spearheaded by Alex Wilson, VP, Senior Design Systems Engineering Manager.

Broad Foundations for Deep Impact

Wilson embarked on the Beacon project with a philosophy of "breadth before depth," prioritizing extensive conversations across the organizational spectrum before laying down the system's foundational elements. This approach, initially termed “Innersource”, was designed to foster an inclusive environment, sensitive to the needs and perspectives of internal users. By engaging leaders and contributors alike, Wilson's team sought to unearth commonalities that would not only garner widespread buy-in, but also seamlessly integrate the new system with ongoing projects.

From Concept to Reality: The POC Phase

The Beacon system's journey, evolving from an idea to an integral part of T. Rowe Price's product development process, began with a Proof of Concept (POC). Starting with a mere 10-12 components, the POC served as a litmus test for the proposed design system, allowing Wilson and his team to optimize resources, gain necessary support, and demonstrate the potential impact on the organization's workflow.

Cultivating Adoption through Community

Wilson's strategy for broadening the design system's acceptance hinged on showcasing its benefits to team managers through workshops and collaborative sessions. This approach led to the formation of a burgeoning community of over 130 members, primarily developers, who would become pivotal in addressing the design system's "challenge space."

“Workshopping it with teams and growing our internal community was what we needed to do.” The community that Wilson speaks of grew to 130 participants. These community members were mostly devs and dev adjacent team members, “The challenge space for the design system wasn't design, it was devs. They need to be included and brought on board.”

Building the Team: A Bottom-Up Approach

The assembly of the Beacon design system team reflected Wilson's belief in the power of fresh perspectives. While the technology side of the team was built by bringing in junior developers, the design aspect was bolstered through a strategic partnership with an agency. This collaboration provided the initiative with a diverse range of design expertise, from seasoned professionals to fresh talents. This hybrid strategy not only allowed for a cost-effective buildup of the team but also ensured that the Beacon design system was constructed on a foundation of innovation and excellence. By leveraging the design agency's resources alongside the vigor of junior developers, the initiative set a high standard of quality from the outset.

The Human Element: Support and Culture

For Wilson, the backbone of the Beacon design system lies in its foundation of support. Emphasizing a human-centric approach, he views the nurturing of a supportive community and a positive team culture as crucial for the system's success. This ethos extends to daily interactions, fostering a sense of unity and shared identity among team members.

“Support is more than just customer service. It’s about getting feedback so we can learn, grow, and provide a better product." Wilson believes that an enterprise platform should be supported in much the same way that an opensource solution is supported. “It should always be working to elevate the community of users.”

Fostering Future Success

As the Beacon design system continues to evolve, its journey underscores the importance of strategic vision, community engagement, and a steadfast commitment to quality and support. Wilson's leadership exemplifies a blueprint for implementing design systems in large organizations, balancing technical excellence with the nuances of human collaboration.

T. Rowe Price's Beacon project stands as a testament to the transformative potential of design systems in harmonizing the efforts of design and development teams, paving the way for more efficient, cohesive, and innovative product creation.

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