February 2024

How to convince management that a design system is a good investment

When product teams ask management for resources to start a design system project, the first answer is often no. We tried to figure out why, and how to get them to say yes instead.
Sara Fazzini
Design Manager, Belka

In late 2023, Belka’s Sara Fazzini and Maria Sole Biondi interviewed designers, developers and managers at 27 companies in Europe and N-America to learn how they approach design systems. This article is the third in a series about what they learned. (Click here for more information.)

In the first two articles in this series, we looked at some of the issues that product teams run into when they’re first building their design systems. But what happens when you can’t get management to let you build one in the first place? 

Why are managers skeptical about putting resources into design systems?

In our interviews with product teams, one of the things we were surprised by was how often they’d had problems convincing management to let them build design systems.

Here’s a typical scenario: You are a designer, a developer, or a manager on a product design team, and you think it’s time to get serious about building a design system. You want to allocate some of your team’s time to building one, get an outside agency (like us) to help you, or even hire a new team member to do it. Maybe you want to start from scratch, or maybe you want to build on something you’ve already started. Maybe you want to hire someone to focus on this, or maybe you just want to allocate some of your team’s time to it.

Whatever your exact situation is, you’re convinced that building a design system would make sense — you just need to convince management to give you the resources necessary to make this happen.

But the answer you get from management is no.

Why? Don’t they get it?

What we discovered: It’s not that the leadership doesn’t understand design systems or just has an irrational distrust and hostility towards them. Often, what makes all the difference is how product teams formulate their requests.

So let’s start by looking at ways <u>not</u> to do it.

Some strategies that won't work

Don't focus on the what and the how

A few months ago we were asked to review a deck of slides that a product team had put together for the CEO of a tech company, asking for an investment on a design system project.

The first slide explained “what is a design system.” The second slide was about “how to build a design system.” The third slide was about “how we’ll organize the work on the design system.”

The problem is that these slides only addressed the how and the what. But to make sense to management, your request must address the company’s goals.

The most important question to answer is why.

Don't focus on how a design system will help you

To be brutally honest, helping you “work better” is probably not a top priority for the company.

By basing your argument on your own needs, you risk making the design system seem like a personal whim or a fancy tool to make you more comfortable.

Again, unless you align your requests with the goals of the person you are asking, or the company in general, your project will never get off its feet.

Don't think too far ahead

If you find yourself explaining that what you want to do will solve a problem that your startup will have in 3-5 years, then perhaps you’re asking too soon.

Anticipating problems is important, but it is easy to go to the opposite extreme. You don’t want to invest a lot of energy in solving problems that do not exist yet and will not exist in the short term.

Stay in the present or imminent future.

Don't be vague

If your project doesn’t have a clear goal or definition of success, clear time limits or no explicit scope, you’re in trouble.

Leadership does not like bottomless pits. They will get scared and tell you, “we’re not Apple!” Meaning: we don’t have unlimited financial resources.

Be precise, and avoid scope creep.

How Serenis did it

The experience of the product team at the Italian telehealth startup Serenis is interesting.

Serenis offers professional online therapy, giving users access to thirteen hundred licensed therapists. In 2023, two years after launch, their user base was growing fast, and their product team had grown from 3 to 11 designers, developers and managers.

They had what you might call an embryonic design system: a few uncoded components in a design library. But with more people coming onboard and a growing product, they thought it was time to get serious about building a real design system. They just needed to get buy-in from management.

Megrianne Vallejo, Serenis’s Art Director and Design Lead, told us that the biggest challenge had been demonstrating to the company leadership how useful the design system could be. “The problem wasn’t that management didn’t get it — they’re very smart people. But they’re working with their own set of priorities, and what you’re doing has to align with those priorities.”

“What we did was to start small, because we knew it was important,” said Andrea Cognini, Software Developer at Serenis. “Even if creating the design system didn’t have the status of a formal project, we carved out some unofficial time to show that it’s not that hard to get started. And then we focused on showing results as fast as possible.”

The team’s goal was to demonstrate that for every two-week sprint, they could build three to five useful components for the product. “The idea was to do small things in each sprint that would make us more productive in the next sprint.”

It took a few cycles but the results were clear. “Eventually our product manager said, ‘Ok, let's put the design system in the sprints.’ So now the design system is no longer ‘underground,’ and shows up in our project management tool.”

Instead of <u>thinking too big</u>, the team at Serenis started with the simplest, easiest-to-build components. “Our design system will slowly expand along with the product, like an ivy covering the wall,” says Megrianne. “In fact ‘Edera,’ the Italian word for Ivy, is what we ended up naming our design system.”

Here's what works

Show off a quick win

Don’t start from zero. The best way to ask for an investment on a design system is by showing that you’ve already done something small, and that you’ve had a positive result.

If you don't have any little wins yet, go back to work until you do, the same way Serenis did.

The “quick-win” game won’t last forever. But it’s a good way to bootstrap your design system project.

Present a united front

For a design system to succeed, you need to have both designers and developers onboard from the start. (See our article on the common reasons design system projects fail.) 

If only one of these teams is asking management for approval, you might be on the wrong path already, and managers would probably be correct in saying no to you. 

But if designers and developers formulate the request together, it should be clearer to management that this it's not about either team asking for a fashionable new tool, but about a serious initiative that will lead to the success of the product.

Align with company goals

Management probably isn’t interested in academic exercises. To demonstrate the need for a design system, you need to show how it aligns with a corporate priority or an important ongoing initiative. 

Do you need to rebrand? Have you raised capital to grow the product massively? Do your plans for the next 6-12 months include major product development? Are you planning a tech migration or the rebuilding of some important streams? 

These are all occasions when building a design system makes sense. You will just need to explain how it will contribute to the overall goal, and demonstrate that you know how to carry it out successfully.

Talk in concrete solutions

Management likes clarity. Make it easy for them to say yes by proposing a concrete solution to a clear problem in a way that aligns with company goals. 

Be specific about the time and resources needed, and the scope of the project. And don’t forget to present a clear and measurable goal. (Something like, “one person working four hours a day for three weeks on rebuilding the design system foundation that will allow us to apply the rebrand on the product in half of the time.”)

· · ·

This article is part of a series of articles about design systems practices in the real world, based on interviews with design and developers at 27 tech companies in Europe and N-America, conducted in late 2023.

Belka would like to thank all the great people we talked to at the following companies for their help with this project: Balsamiq, Buddyfit, Coverzen, DaVinci Salute, Docebo, Docsity, Doctolib, Fatture in Cloud (TeamSystem Group), Fiscozen, Generali, Immobiliare.it, indigo.ai, isendu, Jet HR, Klarna, Musixmatch, NeN, Nibol, 1Password, Scalapay, Serenis, ShippyPro, Subito, Switcho, Telepass, Tot, and TrueLayer.

Read more about the project here, and for even more, subscribe to Belka’s newsletter.

∗ ∗ ∗

Want to know more about design systems?

Next up in the series:

Want a safe pair of hands to help with your own design system?

Check Design System Checkup, our service to make sure your design system brings you results.