February 2024

Why isn’t anyone using your design system?

Congratulations! You’ve built a design system! Or have you? A Figma file full of components isn’t a design system unless someone is using it. So how do design system teams get their colleagues to use their fancy design systems? We investigated.
Maria Sole Biondi
Product Designer, 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 fourth in a series about what they learned. (Click here for more information.)

In our interviews with product teams, we noticed a very common theme: Many designers and developers told us they had committed to building a design system, creating components, and even coming up with a reasonably refined Figma file.

However, they later realized something: What they'd spent a lot of time making wasn't being used — or at least not at a scale sufficient to have a real impact on how the product was being built. 

In short, there was an adoption problem. 

The reason? We think it's because of a common and fundamental misunderstanding about what design systems actually are.

It's only a design system if someone's using it

When most people think about design systems, what they have in mind is a highly organized Figma file, with solid foundations, carefully designed tokens, and a bunch of components, spanning from the ubiquitous button to the most highly engineered table. 

But, that’s not actually what a design system is.

A design system is much more than this visible artifact. It is the set of practices that are built around the artifact. 

A design system is a way of working. It includes a system for managing contributions, feedback loops, and rituals to foster communication and collaboration within and across teams. 

Without these practices, even the most refined component library is nothing more than a glorified UI Kit. It might be nice to have, but its impact will be very limited. 

If you build it, will they come?

Building advanced components in Figma isn’t the hard part.

The real challenge is changing the way people work. And it becomes even harder when you think about it too late, and you end up having done a lot of work on something that nobody is using.

Here are some of the signs that your design system hasn’t been properly adopted by your team:

  • Components keep getting detached from the component library, sometimes even edited to fit the needs of a specific flow
  • Variants and variables are added to the component library with no clear criteria, causing an uncontrolled proliferation that can lead to total chaos
  • Components in production don’t match what is included in the library
  • There’s no feedback from the team. This can mean two things: either your DS is perfect (unlikely) or nobody is using it
  • The documentation is there but no one is using it

As we saw in a previous article in this series, one of the main reasons why design systems fail is low adoption. So how did the teams we talked to avoid this grim scenario?

How they did it: a real life example

“You can’t work in a vacuum when you’re building a design system, because at the end of the day your job is to support the teams building the product.”

That quote is from our interview with the person in charge of the design system of a large company with a big digital product. When their team kicked off a design system project, “we started small, gradually building the system with continuous involvement from the different product teams.”

In the first few months, they worked on the design system without much input from the product teams. “We knew that to involve the rest of the teams we first needed something to spark the conversation. Otherwise everything would be too abstract. So we started with the basics — color tokens, spacing tokens, and things like that.” 

One component at a time

Once the foundations of were in place, the team started venturing out, seeking involvement and feedback from other designers and developers. “We never officially released a full design system. We worked on one component at a time, starting by making a beta version available for everyone to test and play with, and collecting feedback as we worked on a final version.” 

Little by little their design system took shape, with each new component the result of a meaningful back and forth with the product teams.

To get quick results, the design system team established partnerships with the product teams, prioritizing components that were most needed. “I started reaching out to some of those teams I thought would benefit the most, and we agreed to collaborate on the creation of a component.”

Spreading the word

After each component had been released, the teams would make internal presentations to let other colleagues know they’d been doing. Word spread, effectively showcasing within the company that their work could yield significant advantages. After that, other product teams started asking for support.

“Is it working 100%? Probably not. For example, I just talked to one of the product teams yesterday and they hadn't really heard of us yet. They know that we have a design system but it seems they haven't really checked it out yet.” told us our design manager.

Tl;dr: Getting full adoption of a design system can take time, especially in larger companies. But having the right approach from day one is a solid foundation for success.

Four ways to increase adoption of your design system

The main thing to keep in mind is that the design system is meant to be used by people, and for it to work they should be involved throughout its creation.

What are some ways to do it? Here's what we learned.

1. Toot your own horn!

“Even now, there are people in the company who fail to recognize the importance of creating a structure and having an identity. Some people have their own ideas and impose decisions that deviate from what we have built. Disseminating information about the design system could help them understand that we already have criteria for making these decisions.”
— Designer at a fintech startup

To state the obvious: Your colleagues won’t use something they don’t know exists. So promote your efforts! 

As soon as you’ve created your first token, start announcing upcoming releases, and be vocal about the advantages they will bring to the team. 

Take part in design reviews to ask your colleagues what they’d find most useful. Explain how you can help make their work easier. 

Use all the means at your disposal — Slack channels, sharing sessions, internal newsletters — to make people aware of what’s going on, and to make them interested in knowing more.

2. Don't wait for the big reveal!

“Because we [in the design system team] were so focused on building this thing, we didn’t include our other colleagues enough. We were creating it and trying to give it to them, and they were just like, ‘we didn’t want it this way,’ so they didn’t want to use it.”  
— Design Manager at a fintech startup

Spending months building the perfect component library in your private Figma file until you feel ready for a dramatic unveiling won’t help you get people onboard. 

Focus on releasing components and updates incrementally, as soon as they are ready. This way you can have people try things out, provide their feedback, and make sure you’re building what they actually need, instead of imposing your own vision from above.

3. Involve people!

“Building our design system involves a lot more than just working in Figma: it's about engaging in conversations, checking in with people, doing reviews, and things like that.”
— Design manager at a fintech startup.

Encourage feedback and collaboration. Establish dedicated communication channels and systematically ask for feedback. Do it from the first moment and for the whole life of the DS. 

Be open to answering questions and exploring suggestions, encourage ongoing engagement with design system users, have them directly contribute as much as possible to the creation of the DS. 

Remember: no feedback is worse than negative feedback. If nobody comments on your work or asks for improvements, there’s a big chance they didn’t even open the file.

4. Provide support!

“I try to make sure that everyone in the organization can apply our methodology. It may seem trivial, but it took some time to even get people accustomed to dragging a component from the attached library into the file instead of copying and pasting from the design system file.”
— Design Lead at global financial company

Be ready to explain and support. Don’t take for granted that people already know how to use the component library, or take part in DS-related activities. 

Make sure to provide documentation and support where needed, so as to prevent and correct problematic situations.

By the people, for the people

You don’t need everyone in your organization to use your design system for it to be a success. But if no one is using it, something is clearly wrong. 

Keeping people involved from day one is the best way to make sure your efforts aren’t wasted, and that you’re actually building something useful and valuable.

So ask your colleagues about their needs, ask for their feedback, keep them in the loop and make sure your work is bringing them value. 

The big takeaway: Think of your design system as a product and your colleagues as your users — because that’s what they are.

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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.

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