Picking Parts, Products & People

A Team Activity to Start a Design System

Nathan Curtis
Mar 22, 2016 · 6 min read

Teams can be awed by the scale and spread visible in finished systems like Material Design or Lightning Design System. Systems can be both incredibly broad and deep once fully formed, if they ever get that far. Faced with such scale, getting started can be quite daunting or avoided altogether.

I’ve had success leading small teams through a quick, two-stage activity that, over ~60 minutes, bridges from exploring the myriad Parts of a system to considering People involved and Products it’ll impact. The activity is grounded by participants completing and sharing work of a two-page worksheet (download the PDF).

The moderator — often, a design system lead — walks away with well-structure data to inform system strategy and priorities.

Equally important, however, is how the activity effectively reveals a lack of alignment and personal biases across a team. By recognizing these gaps and discontinuities early, a team can draw boundaries around and break barriers of what the system can become sooner and later.

Here’s how the activity works.

Stage 1: Pick the Parts

The first stage orients the group around tangible parts. Each person identifies what matters—and doesn’t matter—to them.

The Protocol

Distribute the first page and briefly introduce the categories and kinds of parts they’ll see (visual language, elements, components, etc). Then instruct participants to:

  1. Draw a thick line or X through irrelevant categories.
  2. Circle the labels of up to the 5 most-important categories (such as Design Language, Patterns, or Editorial) for your system.
  3. Check up to 25 important parts for your system. Each item (Typography) and sub-item (Web Fonts) is a separate check, and checking an item does not imply all subitems are checked.
  4. Of the 25 checked, circle labels of up to the 10 most-important parts.

As participants finish, arrange all worksheets on a table. Let them scan the results and hunt for patterns, and then begin the discussion.

The Discussion

Foster conversation on:

  • Breadth & Realism. Wow, there’s so much! Recognize the scale and spread of parts, and how building a system requires a team to break down the work and prioritize.
  • What We All Value: First find shared categories, then notable part(s). It’s common for (most of) Visual Language and (a few) Elements and Components to emerge as a shared core.
  • What We All Don’t Value: Outline system boundaries everyone shares outside of which — for now — you’ll not focus.
  • What Few / One Value: Note categories that only one or two participants selected. It’s common to address Branding, Editorial and Patterns. Stoke the conversation around such boundaries. In or out? Now or later? Contrast perspectives, and let the discussion flow. Also listen for passions that signal people who may make or coordinate integrating less universally required parts.
  • Breadth vs Depth? Most-oft selected parts (like Color, Typography, and Buttons) include deeper considerations as children (like Contrast, Web Fonts, and Menu Buttons). Use these to sensitize and trigger conversations on how much meticulous design, tooling, and variation is needed for certain parts.
  • Things That Surprise Us (including the Moderator): Every group has a peculiar focus on certain parts, such as Ritz Carlton’s laser focus on branding and logo use when amid a rebranding of such a classic mark. Draw upon these surprises to denote what could be special vs. wrote within your system.

Stage 2: Prioritize the System

The system’s tangible Parts are familiar to beginners and experts alike. Using a second worksheet, you can bridge their appreciation of these parts to equally important and complicated concerns prioritization, Products to which the system applies and People that may be involved.

Column 1: Prioritized Parts

  1. Transcribe the 10 most-important parts to the second worksheet, listing them in a rough prioritized order in the first column.
  2. Asking “How much should we work on each important part?”, prioritize effort per part using no more than 25 tally marks, commensurate with the effort you’d expend on each of the 10 transcribed parts.

Column 2: Products

  1. Freelist as many products by name in your organization’s portfolio that you’ll apply the system. Time permitting, also identify a product’s type (WA: Web App, WS: Web Site, iOS, etc).
  2. Asking “What are our most important products?”, prioritize products by tier up to 4 “Flagship” (most important) and 4 “Secondary” (next most important), marking them with an F or S, respectively.

Column 3: People

  1. Name centralized team members who already have or will have nontrivial allocated time dedicated to the effort, and designate their primary discipline (such as UX, FED: Front End Development, or PdM: Product Management).
  2. Identify federated influencers, often the talented designers and front-end developers from top products, that will play a key role in decision-making and creating things.
  3. Include more distant leaders to align with, such as a director in Brand/Marketing, portfolio manager in Product Management, or similar systems experts in the enterprise.


Generally, it’s good to provoke discussion after each column (Parts then Products then People) but that can elongate the session and limit discussion on Products and especially People.

For each column, highlight:

  • Patterns of consensus across the team
  • Outliers and contrasts that reveal distinct perspectives, such as those of a designer with a strong connection to the Brand team or a developer with work limited to a platform like iOS or Windows.
  • Opportunities for each participant to tell a story, be delegated a topic to focus on, or conversation to have next.

Closing the Activity

End with “Closing Standup,” where each person articulates the 1 or 2 key themes or impressions one-by-one, around the circle. This should take no more than 3 to 5 minutes, give each participant a (last) voice, and enable a moderator to conclude with final thoughts and next steps.

What’s Next After the Activity?

After the activity, the moderator can:

  • Jot down themes, opportunities, and risks that’ll season a system’s strategy presentations and suggest blind spots to monitor.
  • Aggregate and transform Parts data from worksheets to items prioritized in a backlog or task management system
  • Inventory Products to plan engaging each, and a stronger sense of what Flagships to align with
  • Reach out to the People that matter: potential members of a central team, influential designers and devs that’ll contribute, brand management, and—if you haven’t already—sponsoring and endorsing execs. Schedule a coffee. Or lunch. Or 10.

Best of luck getting your system off the ground!

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!


A collection of stories, studies, and deep thinking from…


A collection of stories, studies, and deep thinking from EightShapes

Nathan Curtis

Written by

Founded UX firm @eightshapes, contributing to the design systems field through consulting and workshops. VT & @uchicago grad.


A collection of stories, studies, and deep thinking from EightShapes