Earlier this year, I helped form a dedicated design systems team at Sprout Social. As we rolled the team out to the organization, one difficult problem we were faced with was: how does a team of three people, with a dedicated roadmap, keep up to date with the work of twelve other teams and make sure they are properly supported?
One of the first things our team did was create a document to help other teams find ways to work with us. The document outlined example scenarios and provided numerous options for teams to get in touch if they have questions or needed help. We sat back and waited for the requests to roll in. *Narrator:* they didn’t.
What Went Wrong?
The document did a great job of defining how other teams could work with us, but completely omitted how we would proactively work with other teams. That process, we learned, is much more difficult. Our product teams are growing and frequently juggling priorities to meet the needs of the ever-changing Social Media industry. Expecting designers, product managers, and engineers to read our lengthy guide to find answers sounded better in practice than it played out in reality. Our design systems team has three members with different levels of comfort and expertise across the design and development spectrum. Because of these differences in our skill sets, it was not feasible for us to proactively stay in the loop with and effectively meet the needs of all our products teams while working through our ambitious roadmap. We needed a different approach.
Divide and Conquer
What if instead of our team trying to keep up to date with every team by ourselves, we found partners within the company and worked directly with them? I originally arrived at the idea after reading “The People Part of Design Systems” by Magera Moon and wondering if we could apply similar methods to what the Etsy team had done with “New Hire Boot Camps” and “Design Systems Yearly Rotations” on our team. I also went back and re-read Jina Anne’s post on the Salesforce “Cyclical Team Model” and realized there was a precedence for this concept. A short time later, we reached out to potential partners across the organization and began piloting a new initiative we called Design System Ambassadors.
Design System Ambassadors
Our Design System Ambassadors are designers from across the organization that act as liaisons between their embedded teams and the design systems team. They are our eyes, ears, and voice across the company. Design System Ambassadors not only define and document their team’s design patterns and components, but they also take ownership of them, keep their team synced on design system initiatives, and uncover ways to include design system work on their team’s roadmaps.
The program opens a new channel of communication between our centralized design systems team and Sprout’s other product/brand teams and also increases the amount of impact our design system is able to make on the organization. For ambassadors, the program offers a professional growth opportunity as ambassadors get to lead a major design initiative on their team that is visible across the design and product organizations.
When looking for ambassadors, we seek out people who are not only passionate about design systems but also those who are systems thinkers, willing to stand up for good design and advocate for best practices.
Some of the duties of the role include:
- Auditing and documenting product-specific patterns in our design system and working with the design systems team to identify and classify global patterns as they emerge.
- Being the point person for their team and a liaison to the design systems team for product level component and pattern changes. This requires open communication with engineering, design, and product leadership as new projects introduce conventions, components, and patterns.
- Advocating for the design system by getting relevant stories into their team’s roadmap. This typically means they need to allocate approximately 1–1.5 two week sprints to design system focused initiatives each quarter.
- Attending a monthly check-in meeting and joining a private Slack channel with the design systems team and other ambassadors.
What’s in it for the Ambassadors?
This is an opportunity for individuals to help steer a design and product leadership-backed initiative for their team and directly influence the health and direction of Sprout’s design system. Ambassadors also become stake-holders for improving product design quality and cohesion in the organization and have a voice in defining the future of our design system and component libraries.
Since first piloting the program four months ago, the roster has grown from two to six designers from both our brand and product teams. Over this time, we’ve seen our product squads collaborating across design, engineering, and product management and have been able to ship contributions ranging from updated documentation to new patterns on a nearly weekly basis. The impact on one particular team has been so big that we’ve had to have discussions about potentially expanding the scope of the system to account for new types of contributions.
We initially envisioned the ambassador role as a way to partner with product designers across the team. As the program has evolved, we’ve already expanded to include our brand and marketing teams, and are currently determining how we can expand to include front-end engineers and our content marketing team. This momentum has been extremely helpful for both expanding the reach and perspective of our design systems team. Instead of blocking our calendars to attend countless meetings and reading dozens and dozens of Slack messages to stay in the loop, our design system team is able to rely on our partners to start the conversation and can support them as they need us.
We know other teams have created similar team models and would love to hear about other approaches to expanding the reach of a small systems team in a large organization and how they’ve worked out.