Design systems capital efficiency

Design systems are often promoted or explained using technical language familiar to designers and developers who will use the system — that was our tactic when we started talking about design systems two years ago, and partnering in the community of practitioners. However, this approach fails to reach perhaps the most important audience: The decision-makers who will decide whether to commit the business’s resources to implementing a design system.

The inaccessible jargon often used to discuss design systems can fail to communicate their benefits for the business as a whole. This leaves some decision-makers with the impression that design systems are a costly, risky up-front investment with nebulous benefits.

I've worked as a web developer on dozens of projects, many without any design system implementation, and many with a design system that has been implemented to a greater or lesser degree. I've implemented design systems before beginning work on new features, and I've extended them while simultaneously implementing new features. While I've never worked with a 'complete' or 'perfect' design system (and it's debatable whether that can exist at all), I can vouch for the impact of a design system on a software team’s capacity to deliver effectively.

Design systems have significant benefits for a businesses’ bottom line and the day-to-day effectiveness of product teams. Here’s a simple, benefits-first and jargon-free look at how a design system can help your organization reduce costs.

Less Rework

Design systems greatly reduce the need (but importantly, do not eliminate the need) for bug-fixes, pixel-pushing, approvals, team huddles, deployment delays, rollbacks, and other interruptions. All of these events consume expensive employee time, and they all involve a team member being pulled away from their work to troubleshoot with colleagues, often under stressful, time-sensitive circumstances.

It’s well-documented that knowledge workers take more time to complete a given task when subject to interruptions, due to the need to “re-focus” once they return from the interruption to their original task. Employees are happier and more relaxed when they are able to do their best work without interruptions or unpredictable, high-pressure deadlines.

There are also rework costs each time you launch a new product or experience to market. Without a design system, the teams will start from scratch to build foundational pieces that have been built previously. A design system saves that work, and reuses it in a risk-free way. This is even more important when your work is outsourced to partners, as the costs for their work can eat into budgeting for the project. Reducing rework means reducing the cost of partner companies’ work, either by eliminating the need for outsourcing, or keeping timelines short.

Less Risk

Design systems reduce the risk of damage to your brand through bad user experiences. An application with errors or visual inconsistencies will damage a product’s reputation and repel customers, in the same way that a political or business leader can damage the value of their organization by alienating their audience. You can’t risk degrading your brand experience at a time when digital is your most important touchpoint. A design system empowers teams, both internal and external, to create features using pre-approved, pre-built and pre-tested components, reducing the risk of unintended messaging.

Don’t forget that the websites, apps, and products that your business releases to the public are effectively messaging, or speech. A design system mitigates the risk of a slip of the tongue, so to speak, by making the more routine aspects of product development much more predictable. Colors, fonts, spacing and other style elements are set in one place only, while the logic of the design system propagates them through all of the visual outputs that users interact with.

Crucially, a change in branding means only one change is needed to the original “source of truth” for the change to cascade through all of the areas that are affected by that change.

An additional benefit is that, with the mundane taken care of, your teams are more likely to catch serious, high-level problems with your experiences and messaging before they reach the public. It’s as if an organization is able to guarantee that every time their representatives address the press or the public, they have been briefed by PR and legal counsel, and they have a script or a prompter which they will read from.

It’s as if an organization is able to guarantee that every time their representatives address the press or the public, they have been briefed by PR and legal counsel, and they have a script or a prompter which they will read from.

Less delay

Design systems also mitigate risk in project time and cost overruns. With the building blocks of user-facing software content verified to work as intended, it’s much easier for managers to estimate the time and cost involved in implementing a project, as opposed to a solution with much more uncertainty at the granular level.

Better estimation is better capital efficiency, and this feeds back into the discussion about reducing rework. A design system can make weeks of rework a thing of the past, and ensure that your product launch won’t be pushed back by a month or more while your teams work around the clock to make the product customer-ready.

Why continue to delay the implementation of a design system?

Without a design system, major companies are falling behind in their digital transformation. Not only are they missing out on the benefits already discussed, but they are also losing the wealth of benefits it provides to their practitioners.

For many companies, who are now in the middle of the pack for their digital transformation journey, getting a design system is the result of living through a delayed release of a new product or experience. They may be behind on launching their next product, and hoping the design system will help them catch up. However, it takes at least six months to get the design system built for most organizations. It can take an additional six months until the design system is fully usable, and often more than a year to get to the point where all teams are fully engaged and using it well. This puts companies far behind—living in a risky space for their products, and wasting money besides.

However, design systems are not a scary upfront lift! They can be implemented incrementally, even while the product itself is being actively developed for launch. Often, teams realize they can benefit from the implementation of a design system within the current go-to-market plan after they’ve already set out to develop their product.

Investing in a design system now has tangible, long term benefits for your bottom line. With a design system, you can save on the cost of rework, engage cost-effective, outsourced partners without worry, and release to the market faster than before. Speeding up your product iterations with a design system is an investment worth making.