We asked 27 digital product companies about their design systems stories

12
December 2023

How do companies that rely on digital products for their growth actually use design systems on a day-to-day basis? What challenges do product teams face in building and maintaining these systems?

We wanted to know the answers, and now you can too. 

In the last few months, Belka’s Sara Fazzini and Maria Sole Biondi have been conducting research into the design system practices, interviewing designers, developers and managers at 27 product-led companies in Europe and N-America.

These companies operate in multiple industries and make some of the best designed products in their fields, including 1Password, Immobiliare.it, Jet HR, Klarna, Musixmatch, NeN, Subito and Switcho. (Scroll down for a full list.)

In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting a series of articles on Belka’s blog about what Sara and Sole learned in the process. 

On Wednesday 13 December, Giulio Michelon, Belka’s CEO and self-described cat lady of underdogs, will talk about the subject on stage at an event organized by Milano Politecnico, Italy's leading technical university.  

Giulio’s talk will be webcast live, starting at 18:00, and it’s free and open for everyone. (Click for info and registration.)

Background

The idea for the research project came after Sara and Maria Sole had worked on a number of ambitious design systems for Belka, including Subito.it, Coverzen, NeN, and Davinci Salute.

“We’ve found that each company had a different story and a different approach,” says Maria Sole. “It made us curious, so we ventured out to hear from real people who work with design systems daily.”

“On the internet there’s a huge amount of information about tools — best practices, user guides, updates on the latest Figma features, and things like that,” says Sara. “But there isn’t much about how companies actually use design systems in practice.”

“There’s no shortage of examples of really advanced design systems, created by companies with almost unlimited resources, but not many stories about how the rest of us are managing,” she continues. 

“So we thought it would be interesting to know more.”

Insights

Sara and Maria Sole interviewed 31 designers, developers and managers from 27 companies. “We selected the type of companies Belka usually works with — roughly speaking those that rely on one or more digital products for their growth,” says Maria Sole. “We wanted to know more about the day-to-day work with design systems at these companies, and what they consider important.”

To get a broad picture of the state of design systems, Sara and Maria Sole looked at companies of different sizes and at different stages in their design system journeys, from being in the preparatory phase to having advanced, mature systems. 

The companies interviewed: 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, Subito, ShippyPro, Switcho, Telepass, Tot, and TrueLayer.

They decided to focus on companies in Europe, because that’s the market Belka mostly operates in, but, says Maria Sole, “we ended up including a couple exceptions from North America because we thought it would be interesting to see if they were doing anything completely differently.”

Surprise, surprise

What surprised Sara and Maria Sole most was how often, regardless of the size and resources of the company, first attempts at building design systems ended up in failure — and almost always for the same reasons. 

“When you read about design systems on the internet, it’s always about the successes,” says Maria Sole. “How they’ve improved the user experience of a product, or how it’s made the development process faster, and things like that. But in our interviews, we found that at most of the companies we talked to, the first attempt at building a design system had actually failed.”

“People are very ambitious,” says Sara. “They’ve seen famous examples of design systems from companies like Google or Spotify, and they want to do the same. So they begin with a very advanced idea of what a design system should be.”

Many people said the hard part of building the design system wasn’t building the actual system, but making sure it was adopted. “A common mistake was thinking that once they’d built the system, the company would automatically want to use it,” explained Sole. “Not involving the rest of the team earlier in the process slowed a lot of companies down.”

“Used correctly, design systems are such fascinating tools,” says Sara. But the danger is that they turn into an obsession. “There’s a temptation to build highly polished and over-engineered design systems too early, without aligning with the needs of the product or the business. We shouldn’t forget that a design system isn’t an end in itself – it’s a tool to improve the development of a digital product.”

More to come

Giulio Michelon, Belka’s CEO, is characteristically happy with the outcome of the research. “Hearing real stories from real people in the trenches has made us much more comfortable when working on design systems with our own clients,” he says. “They help us better understand the challenges they’re facing — what’s working and what’s not — and we’re already adapting and tweaking the way we work based on the outcome of Sara and Sole’s interviews.”

The first article based on Sara and Sole’s interviews, “Why your first attempt at a design systems is likely to fail,” is already on Belka’s blog.

We’ll be publishing more insights in the following weeks and months. For updates, be sure to subscribe to Belka’s newsletter here

Bonus! Giulio speaks!

If you’re impatient to know more, Giulio will be introducing the project at an event held at Poli.Design in Milano on Wednesday 13 December, at 18:00. 

In-person attendance is reserved for participants in our design system workshop, but Giulio’s presentation will be webcast live. 

It’s free and everyone is welcome to attend. Click below to sign up and get a reminder when the time comes.  

Info and registration (In Italian)

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The series so far:

Design system magic.
Lights on, lights off.