Working with colleagues on the other side of the world gives Emanuela Damiani a global perspective on design. A UX designer at Mozilla, Emanuela works on Firefox’s Photon Design System to help create cohesive, enjoyable experiences for Firefox users. In this interview, Emanuela talks about the unique challenges of crafting a design system on a global scale.
How does your design system help bring together a diverse, globally distributed team?
It’s definitely a source of information. With so many people working remotely, the design system becomes the place we all go to be sure we’re all talking about the same stuff. For a company like ours with a large developer community, it gives people a way to apply our design language to their everyday projects.
Everyone can use the system, and everyone who feels part of it can contribute to it. It’s not something you consume passively. The final goal is to make the right design decision the easiest decision possible.
What kind of changes has the design system produced at Mozilla?
The biggest impact is that we’re all able to communicate better. In the same way that we all speak the same language in a conference call even if we’re in different parts of the world, it’s important that we all use the same language when we talk about Firefox, no matter which building we’re in or what feature of the browser we’re talking about.
What’s it like to work with people in so many locations?
If you work in a remote organization, you have a lot of people doing different work and sometimes there might be some overlap. The overlap sometimes goes in the same direction, but sometimes it diverges. We want to make sure other teams’ creative efforts do not get wasted.
We collaborate a lot with content strategy to be sure our terminology works the same everywhere. We try to let everyone contribute to the product and make sure it follows more or less the same language.
A different team is figuring out which parts of the current design system can be applied to a different product in the Firefox ecosystem. In this way, it’s possible to create a feedback loop between products that a part of Firefox’s ecosystem and the desktop browser. Only in this way we are able to realign Photon as needed.
What’s one misconception people have about design systems?
Different people in the industry think of a design system as a magic wand, something that is going to fix all the problems in an organization, especially in terms of consistency. But I disagree. For me, a design system is not about consistency. A design system is just a small piece of a bigger effort you have to go through to become a design-led company.
It’s not about making sure all the buttons are blue or have the same borders. It’s about creating a cohesive experience, which is slightly different.
You also have to be ready to iterate your design system. It’s not an effort you do once and then it’s done. You always need to be in a position of discussion and rediscovery, especially when you start to expand the initial system.
How does a design system help a company become more design-led?
It empowers people to make a design decision. If you’re working on a product and you’re deciding something that involves users (all kind of users), you are already making a design decision. Whether you are a project manager or security engineer, the design system can be a tool that enables people to make the right design decision — or at least try to.
Of course, if you give people a tool they don’t know how to use, it gets complicated. But at least it’s a first step to empower people.
What are some of the pitfalls you’ve encountered while developing your design system?
It’s a pitfall not to have a clear vision of where you want to go and an understanding of the different steps you’ll take to get there. It’s also a mistake to think you won’t need resources to keep the system up and running. You need people to work on it.
What’s one of the biggest challenges today’s design leaders need to confront?
The key challenge we face at the moment is making sure we empower people using all the tools from our industry without compromising user privacy and user security. I recall a conversation I had with a security engineer when I was a younger designer. I wanted to add a tracking element in a product I was working on, but I also wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing. I remember the security engineer asking, “are you aware of what we’re trading when we do this?”
The challenge today is to understand the trade-offs we do every time we make a design decision. We have to be sure we’re not trading away the interests of our end users.
What’s your future vision for the design system?
We want to evolve it as much as possible. From a philosophical standpoint, it’s not just a system. It’s a living ecosystem, part of a living thing.