Are Design Systems Enough?
Organizations rely on design systems to keep order and sense in their design work. But when applied at scale, can they really keep pace?
Design systems are frequently hailed as a “best solution”. They’re heralded as saviours when it comes to creating and maintaining a cohesive look and feel across products, platforms, and experiences — especially when working at scale. And there’s a reason for their reputation: teams have found a lot of consistency and relief in using an effective and well-maintained design system.
Design systems provide a codified set of rules and guides. They help ensure that regardless of who creates the experience or which device it ends up on, the end result matches expectations. This makes them extremely useful (we’ve even written about their utility and necessity ourselves). But our own experiences designing at scale have shifted our perspectives somewhat.
Design systems provide an excellent foundation, that much is true. But user insights and new technologies surface unexpected challenges all the time. Even robustly maintained design systems start to push up against the edges of their own utility regularly. Though they can help mitigate some of the uncertainty, design systems often struggle to manage the endless variants that arise. And that has left us questioning: Are design systems enough?
As we have explored their functionality and the ways they work at scale for global, enterprise-level organizations in our own work, we’ve identified three common instances where design systems routinely fall short of the mark. Keeping these three areas in mind both leading into and throughout a project will help ensure a successful end result.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to these challenges. Each needs to be tackled thoughtfully as it arises. But identifying up front where the limits of design systems are and how those flaws can spin out at a global scale can help you plan for the road ahead, saving time, money, and a great deal of stress.
The importance of the human touch.
Design systems, in a sense, work the same way as prefabricated housing. All the elements of the structure are there and they can be assembled quickly, easily, and cheaply. You always know what you’re getting and you know it will work. But if you’ve spent time in a prefab building, then you know that in spite of the simplicity and functionality, it can often feel like something’s missing. It’s seamless, but more often than not, it’s also soulless.
The same is true with design systems. They lend themselves to a “set it and forget it” mentality, an assumption that because it works and looks nice, it’s good enough.
Design systems can be an incredible resource for ensuring a strong through-line, but even when we treat them as living documents and update them routinely with new items — something too few organizations do — they are still just… rules. And rules don’t lend themselves well to compelling experiences.
Rules are great for establishing a baseline, for safeguarding against trouble. But they’re not great at allowing for the creative, flexible, dynamic thinking that sits at the heart of quality user engagement. There are no flourishes, no winning moments, when we use the same building blocks over and over.
Dan Rose spoke about components recently at Smashing Conference here in Toronto and has written about them as well. His presentation echoed our concerns about the limitations design systems have when it comes to breathing life into digital experiences. “I often find that a page made from components lacks the flow and connectivity of a page designed to be a page,” he notes. When we componentize everything — creating simple pieces that can be assembled like a prefab house — we lose the chance to make it feel human.
“Stylistically, everything works just fine (great, even),” writes Rose. “Yet, I struggle to find any element that connects one content block or row to the next.” For all their advantages, design systems frequently lack character.
In an era when people are looking for personality, authenticity, and something tailored to their own preferences and desires, design systems can only take us so far. If we stick too closely to a script, we risk robbing the experiences of the chance for dynamism.
As a foundational base layer they could not be more effective, but that’s not really enough in the end. A human is still needed to intervene, to add the texture in that makes the experience go from “coherent” to “compelling”. Great designs always need a little human touch.
The impact of global reach.
Another area where design systems fall short — and one with far more challenging implications — is dealing with the varied and endless challenges of internationalization and localization.
It would be easy to view a design system as the ideal solution: a codified set of design standards that can be applied globally, ensuring no matter who works on it and where the experience is deployed the end result fits neatly into whatever ecosystem already exists. But in practice, it’s more complicated than that. A lot more complicated.
Design systems are great at giving teams all over the world the same visual and design language to speak. The trouble with that is people around the world don’t actually speak the same design language. And we don’t mean not everyone speaks English (or French or Thai or Urdu). We mean design norms and standards don’t match up culture to culture.
Translation is tricky in its own right, but it’s actually much less challenging than what’s required for truly global products. Reconciling disparate ideas of what an effective information architecture is between cultures, for example, or figuring out how search behaviours can vary as a result of linguistic structures are much more challenging than translation. How can a design system, with its set standards, solve for the sticky challenges of not only longer last names in India than in France, but also for the completely different approaches to page navigation found in Japan versus the US?
In her presentation at Smashing Conference, Jenny Shen, a UX Consultant and expert in the field of inclusive experiences for global audiences, highlighted some of the many variants that can upend a design from one culture to the next. She identified a host of areas where complications can arise. Each area she highlighted was impacted by cultural norms and understandings. And almost every area she highlighted was too tricky to handle within the confines of a design system. She confirmed for us once again the difficulties in a “one design system to rule them all” ideology, especially when applied at a global scale.
“It’s not enough to translate a language,” says Shen. “Culture impacts business decisions and products.” The real work of making something for a global audience requires a lot more manual input than a design system typically accounts for.
Take hamburger menus, which we’re quite familiar with in North America. Including that as a default element in a design system makes sense to a lot of us. But as Shen points out, users outside North America are unfamiliar with the pattern. Employing them for global audiences will alienate swaths of users who can’t figure out the basic navigation structure of your application. This is not a small thing — if entire groups of people can’t navigate a product, that’s a mistake it’ll be hard to recover from.
The advantages of a design system can become disadvantages when we aren’t able to use human intervention and knowledge learned through experience in our work. Design systems are meant to be updated and to adapt to the changing realities of a project or product, but at a global scale it becomes untenable.
Relying on a design system to be the sole authority in these circumstances injects a high-degree of risk. We still need them to help set foundations. But we need people who can intervene when those standards don’t apply in new contexts even more. People — skilled designers — who can interpret the design system and apply the concepts to a completely different need are the only sure way of guaranteeing both cohesive experiences and comprehensible ones across cultures.
The implications of changing forms.
There’s one final challenge we’ve found with design systems: The rapid transformation of the technological landscape. And really, it can be broken down into two or even three separate parts.
The first part is how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are shifting all aspects of design. As AI and ML continue to evolve and become a part of the expected user experience, design systems struggle to keep up with things like personalization. Bespoke digital experiences are increasingly possible and before long, they’ll be the expected norm. How can the tight boundaries of a design system handle that level of customization and granular tweaking and adjusting?
Experiences are already being tailored to broad categories of user types. As the technology and the data that informs it becomes sharper, the experiences will too. People will be able to dictate their interfaces to an incredibly high degree and where once everyone was served the same information in the same way, soon people will be able to refine to match their desires. Design systems aren’t built to handle the level of variation personalization will bring.
The second is equally challenging: the proliferation of form factors. Long gone are the days of a desktop version and a mobile version each for Android and iOS. Designers now need to be able to flex their creations across an ever-expanding stream of mobile and tablet options, browser types, wearable tech, and even voice-first smart speakers. It’s a significant complication of what was once an orderly pile of options for a few different devices.
Steven Hoober quite literally wrote the book on mobile design patterns. Few people are better positioned to comment on how users actually interact with mobile devices. He shared his knowledge at Smashing Conference and one thing he said stuck out in particular: “Each platform has it’s way of working. Designing for the wrong platform feels wrong, and your users will notice it.”
Design systems are meant to give uniform results, they aren’t easily flexed across the various platforms at play. When we try to force every option into one mode or way of operating, we create clunky experiences that feel out of step with the platform. And users bristle.
And finally, there’s a third element at play with the rapid transformation of technology: network connectivity and reach. The tendency is to build to the current edge of what’s possible, but even within a somewhat narrow audience (e.g. “Canadians”), there is an enormous range in terms of what users have access to. Rural users, for example, typically have significantly slower download speeds than urban users. And the devices people use range significantly too. When a next generation device is released, it’s designed to work on current best networks. But before long, network technology outpaces the devices, and most users aren’t willing to pony up the cash to stay at the leading edge.
“As networks improve we are shifting the performance burden from the network to the devices,” says Scott Jehl, an expert on performant and responsive design. In his Smashing Conference presentation, he also noted the challenges in applying a uniform standard across all experiences.
“Trying to make a website work & look the same across so many different devices isn’t the right approach. We need to cater to the diversity,” says Jehl. Echoing the sentiments of Jenny Shen, Jehl notes that the spectrum of performance at a global scale is enormous. Building to the leading edge of it will inevitably cut out massive numbers of people when pages can’t load. If your design system dictates elements and components geared to the top 5% of users, you’ll lose out.
Maintaining relevance in this kind of constant in-flux landscape is extremely challenging. The world continues to shift, continues to change. AI is already in the plans for many major organizations and new players emerge every day to challenge current norms. How can we keep design systems from losing utility when the ground beneath us is shifting so rapidly?
Design systems have proved their value — there’s no denying that — but like all things they have their limitations as well. There is still a significant need for human input, for intervention at various stages of project work to ensure the designs aren’t just good enough, or only good for certain people with access to specific resources. Truly great global experiences aren’t an easy thing to achieve and while design systems can lay a solid foundation, we still need to ensure real, skilled designers and their teams are keeping users as their focus and questioning at key intervals that this is the right thing, and not just the thing the rules said to do.