Design System Leader(s) & Manager(s)

A Job Description for Those That Drive a System

As systems evolve from loosely managed side project to a more disciplined practice, contributors may form a central team that treats the system as a product.

At this moment, questions of “Do we have a backlog?” (Yes) and “Shall we work in sprints?” (Yes) give way to more important questions like:

Who owns design and technical strategy?
Who prioritizes what to make next?
Who sends meeting invites, runs stand-ups, and moderates sprint reviews?

Initially, system teams are staffed by designers, developers, or a mix of the two. These practitioners may be disinterested or ineffective in leading and managing a system as a product.

That’s an important reason teams hire me as a consultant and coach: I’ll serve in these capacities – system lead, product manager, and (untrained but good enough) scrum master – for system teams through a first release. I’ll spend from 8 to 12 hours per week to lead and manage a 5 to 7 person team, each ~1/2 time. For a system to thrive, it’s essential that in-house staff observe and eventually succeed me in each role, whether by adding team members and/or via me training them along the way.

In fact, a systems team I worked with in 2016 had me write up a job description. I love it! They were smart enough to recognize the need (“You know what, Nathan’s not just a designer/developer, is he?”) and serious enough to figure out how to fill the gap.

They were also kind enough to let me share the description with the community, which I’ve copied below. I hope that it helps your team identify who’ll take on varying responsibilities, even if not as a formal hire. Now get to making a system with discipline!


Systems Lead Job Description

Drive the vision, product management, and/or project management of a design system of visual style, UI components, and other design concerns.

The ideal candidate will take a systems-mindset to build and integrate consistent, efficient components across the product portfolio. Emphasis will be on the complete systems life-cycle, from establishing a practice and vision that endures to design, build, document, and maintain a library used by many product teams.


System Design and/or Dev Leadership

  • Lead the visual and technical direction of the experience design, visual style, and technical tooling, with input from director-level peers of product design and development teams.
  • Report team and system progress regularly to primary director leads and executive/VP-level sponsors.
  • Direct scope of systems concerns and relevant products to adopt it.
  • Present the system’s mission, library, and process to other groups, including product managers, content specialists, QA, and other design and development teams throughout the enterprise.
  • Review library docs for editorial quality, consistency, and usefulness.
  • Conduct quarterly one-on-one reviews with team members to identify successes, challenges, perspectives and preferences.
  • Identify and nurture team growth and culture, identifying opportunities for team members to drive and lead system aspects.

Product Management

  • Decisively resolve priorities, timing, risks, task importance, and possible breaking changes.
  • Clarify scope to balance delivering minimum useful functionality with properly scalable system design.
  • Identify, monitor, and report on system use across the enterprise.
  • Attend and coordinate with product management release planning activities to identify library needs.
  • Interview and foster discussions with others using the system.
  • Align research activity to assess efficacy of system concerns.
  • Challenge the system team on what to automate vs manually perform.

Project Management / Scrum Mastery

  • Deliver system releases at a predictable cadence.
  • Manage the backlog and roadmap of library features.
  • Facilitate regular team scrum and sprint planning sessions.
  • Identify, prioritize, and monitor task progress of design, development, and documentation across team members.
  • Schedule regular meetings for critique, scrum, planning, and reviews.
  • Negotiate and clarify staff capacity for system work relative to other commitments to deliver releases at a predictable velocity.

Additional Skills: Design & Development?

The system lead need not necessarily perform daily design and development tasks. However, a Systems Lead should have experience in both competencies, contribute to lower-level decision making, direct broader strategy, and observe when narrower efforts conflict with or distract from broader goals.


Behavioral Competencies

  • Leadership
  • Organized
  • Assertiveness
  • Meticulous
  • Integrity & trust
  • Managing & planning systems

Work Experience

  • 10+ years experience in one or more of: product management of web-based sites and/or applications, information architecture, interaction design, front end development, or business analysis.
  • 5+ years managing design and/or front-end development team(s).

About to embark on a design system, or need to dive deeper to discuss products and players? EightShapes conducts systems planning workshops and coaches clients on design systems. Let’s talk!

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