The massive scale of an enterprise fosters its own design challenges, but design systems can create consistent user experiences, says David Kendall, principal for UX design, digital design, and user experience at AT&T. His team is working on the second iteration of a design system initially launched a few years ago. Here, Kendall discusses the advantages of a design system in a large enterprise.
What do you consider the role of a design system at AT&T?
It’s a killer app — a common platform that scales for design, development, collaboration, knowledge, and communication. We need it to do effective design at scale and respond to the needs of our customers and our products.
It’s really important to understand that design is a crucial business capability. We all feel the pressure to get things done faster and better. An actively managed design system helps us do that at the enterprise level while coping with the needs of our current digital world. In a large company, you need scale. But you don’t necessarily scale design by bringing on more designers — you scale with systems.
One way to visualize the role of an enterprise design system is to think about all the standardization in an automobile assembly line. As designers, we need standard components that are created, assembled, and delivered in a really prescribed manner. But cars also need stylistic variations — sedans, minivans, pickups, SUVs — to suit different customer needs. Similarly, we have to systematize design to get really efficient, consistent production while enabling variation within that system.
How has the design system influenced collaboration and culture at AT&T?
Before we had the design system, people felt confused about which version of the UI was most accurate. The design system changed all that because it gives us a single point of truth on the current state of our UI. That reassurance was just huge.
We’re also seeing more of a knowledge-sharing culture. It helps us do deep dives that go beyond the visuals and explore the human behaviors involved in interacting with a UI. We’ve had learning platforms before, but this one is much more relevant to the lives of designers.
Has the design system improved efficiency on your team?
The gains in efficiency have been dramatic. Agile design sprints go more quickly because people can get stuff done accurately. We’ve also made it available to external teams, and that’s been a big success. There used to be a lot of time wasted on both sides getting people set up and sharing information. Our partners say the design system has been great for providing clarity on getting things done.
What are some of the biggest challenges of building design systems?
Once you get buy-in to build a design system, you essentially have two choices: Go big or stay small and focused. If your organization isn’t already set up to manage, support, and sustain an all-encompassing design system, it’s hard to implement one.
We had some successes at AT&T, but for quite a while we mostly talked about building a design system. Things only started happening when we started small and focused. We stopped trying to boil the ocean and instead focused on a few instances — getting them right and figuring out how to expand upon that.
You also have to make sure you incorporate code and developers into the creation of your design system. It’s not just a library of UI assets — it’s a holistic system for design and development.
Remember, it takes time to build and implement a design system. Make sure you always communicate the progress of your system to leadership and the wider organization.
How are you handling governance?
Enforcing a design system is a tough job. It can’t become a policing effort — the work just goes by too fast.
Frictions arise if we add components to the system, but designers want the components to do something else. When that happens, they can take their issues to the design standards team and see what it takes to adopt possible revisions. This gives us some reassurance that if people access the design system correctly, then it should help deliver the correct brand experience.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in the past year from a design perspective?
A while back we had a phase where the design system sort of languished, but now we’re getting it back on track. We’ve had some challenges, but I’m proud that we still maintain a strong focus on supporting the design system. I’m not arguing whether we should or shouldn’t have it, but how do we make it better? How do we make it respond to new requirements and new tools we’re trying to integrate?
How have you encouraged designers to embrace the design system?
Early on, we hosted two-day design jams that were a huge success. They were great for culture, sharing, and collaborating, but more importantly, they gave our creative teams a chance to stress-test the design system.
We had a large conference call where I walked them through the new design system and showed them how they can access everything. Our teams were diverse: We had information architects, designers, writers, and producers. We assigned them existing pages and had them basically apply a new design and work with the existing toolkit as best they could. That process really helped us identify gaps and issues.
That was really great, again, for culture and collaboration. It ensured participation because it reassured people the design system was built with them in mind. It was really exciting work to see.