Mutant rat kebabs and the limitations of design systems

Last week I watched Jennie Yip’s talk, Reimagining the Atlassian Design Systems, from Figma’s Schema 2021 conference.

In the talk, Jennie discusses the importance of setting expectations about what a design system is and is not responsible for.

For example, a design system can provide tools and standards to support teams in creating products. But they cannot guarantee good products: that’s the job of the product team.

To illustrate this, I’d like to share an anecdote with you.

Back in 2014 I was working for Which? Magazine, and we ran an investigation into the contents of lamb kebabs and curries.

We had lab-tested 60 samples of lamb curries and kebabs from London and Birmingham. We completed our usual due diligence, following stringent fact-checking and quality assurance processes before sharing our data.

Shockingly, 40% of the samples we tested contained meat other than lamb, and several contained no lamb at all.

When we published our findings, the Food Standards Agency launched its own investigation which eventually corroborated our findings, and began to crackdown on food contamination.

This was what we’d called for when we published our findings and what we’d hoped would happen. In short: a good outcome.

Around the same time as Which? published its story, several news publishers had reported sightings of larger-than-average rats on the London Underground.

The 2 stories had no relationship to one another.

However, in a somewhat astonishing move, the Daily Star proceeded to publish a story claiming that “mutant rat” meat may have found its way into the UK’s kebab supply chain. This was entirely unsubstantiated.

This was not what we’d called for when we published our findings, and not what we’d hoped would happen. In short: a bad outcome.

The moral of the story is this:

Build the best design system you can and be clear about how it should and should not be used, but recognise your limitations.

You cannot completely control what people do with the tools you give them.