What do design system product managers do?

As the product manager for digital design systems at REI, I’m frequently asked about what I do. Let me explain how product managers can help lead design systems, based on my experience.

Design systems have become an essential part of efficient product development workflows, and there is a great benefit to treating the system as a product itself. Unlike projects, which have a defined start and end date, and limited resources beyond that end date, design systems are ever-evolving tools and processes that need product management to support the full lifecycle from the initial build throughout ongoing maintenance and iterations.

The collaborative efforts of a cross-functional product trio including design, engineering, and product management are key to building a successful design system that will continue delivering value to an organization over time.

Where system designers and engineers have the subject matter expertise to build a design system that’s compatible with current workflows and technology, a dedicated product manager can help align the vision for the system to the goals of the organization, prioritize the roadmap based on those goals, and build a communications strategy to drive adoption and create feedback loops with consuming teams. 

As the design system matures, a product manager can help keep a groomed backlog for new releases, maintain intake and support processes, and measure/report on the impact of the design system to ensure ongoing investment.  

Align vision to goals

If you’ve identified the need for a design system, you probably have an idea of some common components that you’ll want to include. There are basic building blocks like buttons, links, text, inputs, and images, as well as components specific to the needs of your organization, such as cards, modal dialogs, tables, etc. 

A product manager can help the team make decisions and guide the roadmap for building out a component library, working with design and engineering leads to identify and prioritize the initial component set. 

Crucially, product managers help relate the value of improving the designer/developer experience to the goals of the business or organization. Whether there’s a new brand redesign that needs to be rolled out cohesively across a digital product line, a need for cost savings through operational efficiencies, or a desire to improve speed to market for new product development—product managers take a strategic approach to developing a vision for the design systems that align to business goals, as well as the needs of product development teams. 

Clearly defining the vision for the design system will help inform the product strategy and sell it to others in your organization. 

Manage communications and relationship building

For all their subject matter expertise on designing a visual language, identifying common components and design patterns, system architecture and distribution methods, designers and developers often lack product marketing skills—or they just would rather focus their time on the work of building the system itself. 

Having a product partner to help clearly articulate the business value and long-term impact of a design system can help get buy-in from leadership in an organization, an essential step to getting the investment for a dedicated systems team.

As a product that serves other products, building strong relationships with your users through feedback loops and transparent communications helps to ensure that the system stays useful and relevant over time. 

Understanding who your users are, how they work, and what problems you can help them solve will help ensure the market fit for a design system in a specific organization. Aligning to the specific needs of those product teams will make teams more eager to adopt. 

Building relationships with the product teams who will be using the system informs a design system team what to build and understand the technical feasibility of adoption. It can also help discover potential early adopters who can help pilot test the system’s offerings and provide valuable feedback. This work should begin even before a system is officially launched. 

This can be done through user interviews to learn about current workflows and pain points, meeting with product teams to understand their specific use cases, demoing work in progress, or even simple surveys about what people would like to see on the design system roadmap. 

Incorporating feedback from your users also helps create a feeling of shared ownership in the system, so teams will be more likely to adopt new system features and become advocates for it to their peers. 

Direct feedback can identify gaps in the component library and help prioritize future work in the team’s backlog. Tracking frequently asked questions can also help uncover the parts of the process that still may be unclear to your consumers. 

Getting user feedback early can help inform the overall product strategy, vision and roadmap for a design system that will deliver value in the long run. No two design systems are the same, as they should be informed by the specific needs and objectives of your organization and product teams. 

Change agents

Design systems are a collection of tools and processes that represent a mindset shift in digital product development. Change is hard, and it’s often the ‘people factor’ that become the biggest challenges to adoption of a design system. Not only are we building a new product, but we’re asking people to change how they work. 

No longer are we thinking at the page-level for designs, but breaking a page down into its component parts and creating a system to distribute those common components across a website or application. Design systems are force multipliers in scaling design across a digital ecosystem—amplifying the efforts of one team to the benefit of all.

Rather than building one-offs, we think about the durability and extensibility of design patterns, and consider how it will be reused. This may mean we have to go slow now to go fast later, or accept constraints to maintain a consistent user experience.

Product managers can help wrangle stakeholders and work with other teams across a multi-disciplinary organization to build visibility and consensus. 

Building relationships with open dialog and opportunity for contributions is key to driving this type of major change in an organization.  

Maintaining your design system 

Once a design system is out in the world, it shouldn’t remain static. Managing a design system includes setting up processes for ongoing maintenance and future iterations. Just because you’ve built it and gotten it out there, the work isn’t done. 

Setting up support channels and intake processes for design system consumers is essential to keeping feedback loops open, and understanding what’s working and where there are opportunities to grow and improve the system. Product managers can take the lead on developing these processes while the team works on the system itself.

These communication channels can take many forms: user support Slack channels that are monitored by the design system team, office hours hosted by the team that anyone with a question or idea can join, and simple forms to report bugs or request new features are all common examples.

Direct feedback can identify gaps in the component library and help prioritize future work in the team’s backlog. Tracking frequently asked questions can also help uncover the parts of the process that still may be unclear to your consumers. 

A product manager will use all these inputs to help prioritize the work for the team, whether it’s adding new components or variants to the roadmap, exploring new distribution methods, or spending more time on ‘getting started’ documentation to improve the onboarding experience. 

Measuring your design system’s impact

There are many ways a product manager can measure the impact of a design system.

Tracking adoption across a product ecosystem and reporting on component usage in code and design files can provide quantitative data to show the health of a design system. You can also instrument analytics tracking on your documentation site to see how frequently it’s being referenced, and which pages are the most visited. 

Talking directly to your users will provide valuable insights about the design system, and provide qualitative feedback about how the system is delivering value. This becomes extremely important to communicate back to the rest of the organization—both to encourage adoption into new products, and to report on the impact of the design system and need for ongoing investment in the team.

Continue advocating for your system

Design system PMs find themselves constantly selling the value of the work that the team delivers to different stakeholders throughout an organization. This visibility is essential to maintain ongoing investment in the team to support the system, as well as encouraging adoption in new products. 

Success stories from early adopters can go a long way in communicating the impact of the system. How much time was saved on a project by using the design system? When was the system used to quickly create a prototype to validate a new idea through user testing? 

Product managers for design systems can take advantage of the relatively easy access to their users that work within their organization to uncover these stories of quick wins and how the system is actually being used. User interviews can provide valuable insights that may be enough to sway a team that’s putting off adoption, or a stakeholder that may not understand all the technical details but will appreciate how the system helped launch a new product to market more quickly.

Never forget your design system’s goals

Keep in mind that a design system is in service of those designers and developers who use it to deliver quality work more efficiently. 

Like other customer-facing digital products, understanding your consumers and their needs and goals can help to ensure that the system is delivering value to them.

Design systems have the most impact when they are connected to their user needs and business goals, and have a dedicated team to design and develop the system, as well as maintain it and market it to the organization. Treating the system as a product will help ensure success in the long run.

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