Show me the money: Reflections on this month's open space on getting investment for design systems

For those of you who’ve been fortunate enough to miss my incessant social media posting on the matter, I run a monthly Zoom session called Design Systems Open Space.

It’s aimed at people working on design systems, and provides a chance to get together, meet others in the space, and share our lessons and struggles.

Each session focuses on a different topic - voted for by attendees - and this month we talked about “getting investment into design systems and keeping it”.

Here’s a write up of the discussion.

Communicate value with data

One attendee - whose role means they work with lots of design system teams - remarked on a correlation they’ve noticed between design systems defunding and a lack of performance measurement.

Design system success metrics are notoriously complex, imperfect, and indicative at best. But failing to track anything at all puts teams at a far greater risk of having their budget scaled down or withdrawn.

Attendees shared different methods and metrics for tracking performance. Quantitative data like product coverage, number of teams adopting, change in speed to production, and team satisfaction scores were among those mentioned.

But just as important, one attendee commented, is the need for storytelling: contextualising data to make it meaningful to our organisations’ leadership.

The consensus on when to start gathering data was “as soon as you can".

Setting a benchmark is important for tracking progress, and the sooner that benchmark is set, the more stark any gains will appear.

Design system goals must map to business goals

We all agreed that tying design system performance to business objectives was imperative. That’s not to say that all design system success metrics need to directly support business goals, but we’re likely to find ourselves in trouble if none of them do.

It’s all well and good tracking common system metrics like component coverage and adoption - but unless budget holders understand the business impact on system growth, this information won’t necessarily translate into investment.

Acquisitions and mergers provide fertile ground for design system investment

Several attendees talked about their experiences of working on design systems during company acquisitions and mergers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, post-merger requirements for brand unification, technology consolidation, and content migration, seems to significantly increase the perceived strategic importance of design systems.

Acquisitions and mergers create a good climate for design system teams to communicate value to stakeholders in terms of what they consider relevant and important. Providing building blocks to support change at pace and scale is a compelling argument for a company whose digital landscape is entering a period of flux.

Whilst it’s wise and pragmatic for design system teams to capitalise on these opportunities, it’s important to articulate the ongoing value a system can provide and the dependencies on it. Not doing so can put design system teams at risk of cutbacks once the post-merger dust has settled.

What to do when design system funding gets cut

Many attendees bore the scars of design system defunding. In some cases, budgets were cut after a system was built, because budget holders didn’t understand the need for ongoing investment.

More commonly, design systems’ budgets are viewed as an easy target for cutbacks because the impact is often indirect, and takes longer to emerge than in other areas.

So what can we do when this happens?

A theme in the responses was to lean on community. Two participants shared stories about support they’d received from system advocates within their organisations: design, engineering and product leads who had spoken up and evangelised their work when funding was called into question.

I shared an example from a previous design system I’d worked on, in which our team was indefinitely moved onto another piece of work. During that time, we took a hard line about providing no support to our community and carrying out no maintenance on the design system, and we asked adopting teams to report any impact back to us.

Although this strategy was emotionally-challenging for us and frustrating for our users, it allowed us to gather clear evidence on the need for sustained investment, which was eventually restored.

Does framing design systems as products encourage investment?

Towards the end of the session, we ventured into a well-trodden debate about whether design systems should be thought of as products. Some participants felt that framing them as such would help organisations’ leaders to understand the need for sustained investment.

Personally, while I think that the product-framing is certainly an improvement upon the notion of design systems as finite projects, I don’t think it’s quite right.

My experience has been that the term “product” comes with a weight of expectation that’s not always conducive to sensible systems work. That design systems sit a layer away from “end users”, and have to take into account the needs of multiple product teams, means that they move at a necessarily slower pace than individual products.

This doesn’t always sit well with the agile delivery aspirations that many leaders see as synonymous with product thinking and operations.

In summary…

Communicating value in a way that elicits funding is an ongoing struggle for those of us working on design systems.

“Trust us” is rarely a persuasive strategy for budget holders: sooner or later we’re going to have to demonstrate return on investment. Collecting data on areas of impact can help with this - and it’s never too early to start.

Even after initial investment, design system teams remain vulnerable to cutbacks.

Advocacy from allies in our organisations can prove essential in helping us to weather periods of uncertainty, so it’s important to invest time and effort in relationships and community-building.

So you might say - if you were totally basic and unimaginitive - that when it comes down to it, design systems are ultimately about people.