How to Position Your Design System Team For Success

Kate Trenerry, Client Strategy Director

Article Categories: #Strategy, #Design Systems

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Internal Design System teams have become commonplace in the tech industry, but it takes a savvy business leader to position them successfully within an organization.

Today’s most valuable companies excel in creating excellent experiences across the entire customer journey. Consider the process of searching for an AirBnB, managing your account on the mobile app, and getting help with an issue. Thoughtful and consistently-designed software supports every piece of the customer’s lifetime journey.

Across industries, Design Systems are critical to operationalizing this level of polish and success. In recent years, companies of all sizes have created internal teams to build and shepherd the Design Systems that enable other products to succeed with speed and scale. But those teams are not created equal, and it takes a savvy business leader to position them successfully within an organization. Here are the steps for getting started.

  • Align your team with business goals and measure progress.
    • Design Systems produce incredible cost savings and value to an organization. Be diligent in establishing and tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) like time allocation, retention, team satisfaction, revenue, and valuation.

    • After you establish baseline metrics, expect to fine-tune the team’s roles, priorities, and the products they work on in order to support overall revenue growth and team KPIs.

    • Plan ahead for your Design System team to grow proportionally to product team scale and your company’s revenue goals.

  • Position your team close to revenue sources.
    • Design System teams with direct responsibility for, or good insight into revenue-generating products can produce greater impact than teams operating in isolation.

    • At Atlassian, the Design System Team is part of Customer Experience, and is positioned alongside other mission-critical teams like Commerce, Jira Scale and Performance, and Buyer Experience. The team is part of the core structure that delivers products to customers, and in turn, generates revenue.

    • At Netflix, the Hawkins Design System is built and maintained by the Core XD group, a subset of the Design team, which is nested under Product. The Product team is ultimately responsible for the technology Netflix uses to deliver its content and is essential to the business.

    • At DoorDash, the Design Infrastructure Team is part of Design & Engineering, the team that is responsible for the software used by consumers, merchants, and dashers. That software helped enable their recent IPO and current 55% market share.

  • Give your team the gift of real power and real accountability.
    • Design System teams should influence as many digital products as possible. Position them with immediate access to other teams, and give them a mandate to support products across the organization, prioritizing those closest to revenue sources.

    • Design System teams need either time or budget (or both) to get their work done. Release them from other responsibilities or old job descriptions, or let them hire new staff or an agency to help accelerate the process.

    • Design System teams should be held accountable to the established metrics. Review their work consistently and fairly, and compensate them according to the (likely considerable) value they’re driving for the business.

While the org charts will always look different between companies, it’s clear that industry leaders in tech have already realized considerable value from creating dedicated Design System teams to support revenue-producing products. Those teams will flourish when leaders create tight alignment and between business needs and the team’s mandate and responsibilities. But this won’t happen organically.

If you’re responsible for multiple product teams, can unite product and marketing work, or are tasked with creating efficiency on design and engineering sprints, you also have the power to help create a Design System team and position them for success. The best time to get started was yesterday. The second best time is now.

Kate Trenerry

Kate is a client strategy director in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. She helps new clients distill complex ideas into elegant digital experiences.

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