Art of Diplomacy

7 soft skills toward a successful design system

Linzi Berry
Feb 15, 2019 · 6 min read

I began developing design systems on the agency side at the beginning of responsive web. The work tripled, while our resources and time didn’t. A templated, modular system was the only way to accomplish large site redesigns. I lovingly built these systems out, each with robust documentation, and handed it off to the client. Months later a subpar version launched with many new colors, type styles, and components that weren’t in the pristine original.

What the @#!$ happened?

In 2017 I went in-house and Linda Dong and I set out to create Lyft’s first product design system. Oh… farts. No wonder it wasn’t working before! I’d only been doing half the job and lobbing the hardest part over the fence. Systems design is not only scientific and meticulous, it’s the mastery of interacting with people in a sensitive and effective way. It takes human connection and empathy to go from a sticker sheet to a living, thriving system. The time we invest in relationships with designers and engineers (and their bosses, their bosses’ boss, their project managers, and the accessibility guru down the hall) is as important as building the system itself.

Empathize with teams & their users

Adopting and migrating a product to the system is a huge task for any team. To accomplish this with the least amount of thrash, we have to drive home the benefits a system provides and, arguably more important, how much we truly care about them and their user’s needs:

Reassure stability

After teams are bought in and start using the system, piecemeal updates and additions can be overwhelming and make the system feel unstable. Creating a consistent, batched workflow and announcement process sets expectations and documents why we did what we did.

Every Wednesday we post on our communication channels the changes to existing and new system elements. For existing system elements this gives product teams a week before the next release to migrate and catch any bugs. For new components we only announce when they are code complete on all platforms and we have a adoption & migration plans for 2–3 related elements at a time.

Educate, don’t enforce

We see ourselves as teachers, not the police. We create documentation as a resource and we present as if we were in front of a classroom. When reviewing work, we always ask questions around the decisions made and follow along the process to how they got there. We studying our designers, and their habits, in the same way that they look at their own users — to try to serve them better.

We fly at different levels: product designers know their users & business goals while we can speak to solutions across all products and the inclusivity of all users. We move at different paces: they know the fast tested metrics while we can do deep research to offer alternative solutions. With a shared respect, we can learn valuable things from each other.

Be flexible

Our product teams are closer to our users and innovate faster than us. We know that sometimes the the system won’t cover all their edge cases. By approaching our system as a living document, it remains flexible enough to be open to new ideas, challenge what we’ve created, and pull in new paradigms as they are proven successful.

We categorize our system elements to set expectations for how flexible they are to add to and how flexible they are to change:

Share ownership

Designers and engineers desire ownership of their work and that can be difficult when using a system they didn’t create. By creating clear pathways to get involved, we can share ownership:

Construct communication avenues

Direct messages distract and only provide the answer to one person. We have constructed communication avenues, with a 16 hour response time promise, to protect our valuable work time:

We block off time at the beginning of the day to read and comment on these avenues, including the DMs, rather than getting distracted throughout.

Stay Positive

It’s important to remain positive when communicating with others because we are the physical embodiment of the system. If we are easy to work with, so is the system. If we are intimating, so is the system. This may seem simple, but it’s hard to do when receiving feedback, questions and requests at scale — especially in duplicates or on the weekend. We have a few hacks to keep from getting burnt out:

At the end of the day, the system is an internal tool and our coworkers are it’s users. They’re human, just like us, and they want to do a good job, just like us. By empathizing, reassuring, educating, remaining flexible, sharing, communicating, and staying positive we’ve overcome many hurdles and are excited to take on new challenges in the future.

I’m Linzi Berry, currently design systems manager at Lyft. I sweat the details so you don’t have to. Please subscribe!

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Sweating the details so you don’t have to

Linzi Berry

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Design Systems Lead at an SF-based consumer tech company

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Sweating the details so you don’t have to

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