Why every design system needs a service designer

And 4 lessons I learned from ours

I saw a job advert recently — an organisation was hiring people for its new design system team.

They were looking for developers, interaction designers, user researchers, product and delivery managers. There were even spots for a couple of content designers (we’re a depressingly rare breed in design system teams).

But there was one glaring omission: they weren’t hiring a service designer.

After just over a year, our service designer is about to leave our team and move onto her next project. Seeing the gap in that recruitment plan made me reflect on the value she’s brought to our team in her time here and just how much we couldn’t have done without her.

Here are just 4 of the valuable lessons I’ve learnt from working with our service designer, and why I think every design system needs one.

1. Put community before ego

When working on a design system, a lot of the focus and tends to be on the stuff it contains and the speed with which you can deliver it.

Practically, it’s often quicker to knuckle down and deliver it yourself. Reaching outside of the team means more opinions to negotiate and time spent teaching others about your conventions and processes.

But building a community is what differentiates a design system from a pattern library. You need people to participate by using it, contributing to it and advocating for it, and you need to foster a whole lot of goodwill to achieve that.

And that’s where service designers come in. They, ours in particular, possess an incredible natural instinct towards collaboration.

Eliciting cooperation from disparate groups of stakeholders is no mean feat, but it’s essential if you’re trying to engage a large organisation and get it to converge on a collection of patterns.

By valuing the whole over the individual, our service designer has empowered people to participate. She’s worked transparently, sharing and documenting her work to involve others, and in doing so has ensured its longevity. This doesn’t happen if you focus on individual ownership.

Prioritising collaboration even, sometimes, at the expensive of short term efficiency, makes a design system far more sustainable in the long run.

2. Favour action over deliberation

One of the government design principles is ‘Make things open, it makes things better’. The belief that by sharing work with others and receiving feedback improves its quality and reduces risks.

In practice, there is usually a good amount confidence-building that happens before something is shared in the open. You’ll mull over your idea first, make personal notes and sketches. You may discuss it with one or two team members, consider its merit, adjust it, then reconsider it.

This deliberation in the safety of a small group is a way of strengthening conviction before an idea or a piece of work is shared more widely, ensuring that the pitch is honed and challenges are expected and prepared for.

While there’s some value in that, working with our service designer has taught me that there’s infinitely more reward in having the courage to take action and make things open earlier.

She regularly turns to me at the end of a discussion and says “so what are we going to do?”. My natural instincts urge me to continue the discussion, but she’ll challenge me to make something happen.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t daunting at first, this pressure to share my ideas in the open before they were fully developed. The idea that someone might spot a flaw I could have preempted is uncomfortable, but that’s ego talking.

Turning deliberation into an artefact, a pilot process or a blog creates a talking point. It exposes strengths and the weaknesses immediately, accelerates discussion and alignment, and takes you far more quickly from an idea to a good idea.

3. Be both a decision maker and a doer

It’s a popular belief that at some stage in your career you have to kiss goodbye to practice and step into a world of theory. That in order to progress, you start planning and stop participating.

But good service design requires a good deal of both. You have to pitch in and immerse yourself in the detail, and you have to know when to step away and take stock of the big picture.

When helping us to develop our contribution process, our service designer spent weeks interviewing both past and potential contributors, researching open source models and understanding the challenges and opportunities at play. She used this to develop an impressively intricate contribution journey map, and helped the team to translate these learnings into a well-oiled contribution model.

She helped us create documentation detailing the steps and expectations for contributors, the assurance process, and what our team would do to support these activities.

Her attention to detail impressed me, but what impressed me more was her ability to step away.

Despite all she’d invested in it, when the time came, she quietly relinquished control. She moved onto the next challenge, entrusting the team and community to continue this work.

And that’s what good service design is. It’s mucking in, not just understanding the detail but experiencing it. Immersing yourself in the minutiae, gaining empathy for users by getting the full picture, and then zooming out again. Attention to detail is important but transient. Attention to the service remains a constant.

4. Practice human-centred design, always

When people talk about design systems, they tend to focus on the platform, the features and the significance of technology choices.

But making a design system work is not about bells and whistles. Success lies in how well it’s adopted into an organisation’s culture, processes and infrastructure, and the key to all of that is people.

Thinking in a more human way has led us to ask bigger questions of our service. How could we involve more people? How do we win trust? Where can we do better?

From helping us provide the best possible support to users when they get stuck, to enabling the wider community to contribute, our service designer has driven us to maintain a constant and necessary focus on our users.

By challenging us to be more considerate, more inclusive and more accommodating to our users, she’s taken us from building a product to delivering a service that puts people at its heart.

— — — —

The value of service design can be tricky to quantify. It’s not one thing, but a thousand little things. From a shared sense of purpose cultivated within a team or community, to the collection of incremental improvements that combine to transform user experiences.

For me personally, it would be hard to overstate the value of our service designer’s input and support in the time we’ve worked together. As well as a valued colleague, she’s become my friend, and I’ll continue to watch and learn from her after she’s moved.

So my one piece of advice to you is this: if you’re building a design system, be sure to include a service designer — you’re going to need it.