A design system should blend creativity and company culture to produce engaging products and user experiences. That’s the philosophy of Joseph McLaughlin, a partner director of design and research in Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices Group, and a driving force behind Microsoft’s Fluent Design System. Joseph shares how Fluent helps foster a culture of collaboration to provide a better experience for Microsoft’s global customer base.

What was it like a decade ago working on Metro, Microsoft’s initial design language?

Back then it was more about folks connecting and defining something together — it was fairly high-level and design focused, leaving quite a bit of room for interpretation when executed in product, in code. But we found it worked well to help people understand the importance of making a design system part of our design discipline and culture. It was almost a rallying cry that evolved design awareness within the company.

Why is having a design system so critical at an engineering-focused company like Microsoft?

When we pitched the idea of a modern design system to a meeting of company VPs, it went really well actually. We’re sort of taking a page from our engineering peers’ playbook: If tens of thousands of Microsoft engineers can work globally across hundreds of products, then there’s something we can learn here in terms of how to scale design.

That realization and framing is essentially truth and music to the ears of an engineering-heavy company. We have to become more efficient, more effective, and ensure the design system supports the company’s goals. There’s a cultural impact potential here that changes the way we work and helps us build better products in the future, together.

Internally, people at Microsoft are excited and committed to the evolution of design and coherence in a company a large product offering and global user base. We also realize that we have to build an open design system that enables us to work better together. So, we’re trying to build a foundation together — shared processes, fundamentals, and methodologies that build efficiency, simplicity, and coherence.

Externally, we have to ensure that the essence of our products is exactly what the user expects across every platform and context. The only way to scale these best-in-class experiences is to do it together, building a shared foundation that enables teams to focus on their product, product category, and brand expression. The design system gives them that foundation and lets everybody contribute to its evolution.

It’s about creating an open-source, open-ecosystem, open-design system internally that adds up to a better cross-platform product experience.

What’s a common misconception about design systems?

People may not realize that doing this means a lot of upfront work, which requires a dedicated team to facilitate and be accountable to designing the system itself, over any one product, or platform. Initially, building a design system is important enough to be somebody’s day job. We’ve learned that it can’t be something we agree is important and aspire to do, but depend on happening as a byproduct of collaboration. It’s like any other design challenge or problem to be solved and requires a similar approach — broad research and understanding across teams, tools and processes, then synthesization, planning, coordinating efforts, communications and many nuanced operational puzzle pieces coming together.

What motivated Microsoft’s embrace of a design system?

There’s not a lack of talent, or passion here, but we had real pain points from doing things the hard way — seemingly every time. A handful of people realized there has to be a more efficient, effective way to collectively design and build products together. We also wanted to work better as a collective at a design-leadership level.

We explored these challenges across the company and the impact on our products. Then we asked how a design system that we all contribute to could produce a better design culture while helping us design at scale and while building better products for our customers.

We’re looking at the problem with a user-centered lens basically — much like any other design problem. That means understanding how inefficiently we were working, what efficiencies could be achieved and how many hours we could save by building the foundational layer of the system. Then we explored the positive impacts on our teams, products, end users, etc. and have since started to apply the learnings and iterate as needed. It’s a living, evolving effort.

What potential pitfalls do people need to think about before building a design system?

There can be an assumption or misperception that it means a one-size-fits-all approach — that our team would impose a top-down, lowest common denominator solutions.

That’s not our approach. When people are experts in their disciplines, across platforms, products, and product categories, we have to leverage their expertise to build the collective framework as a shared foundation. We’re looking for a general understanding of each space, in order to accommodate a broad set of needs or requirements, then work to facilitate the right environment to engage with them to build the system together.

Our solution is a network approach that everyone wants to be a part of and brings their expertise and passion to the collective. Everyone has a voice, and an owner or steward — we’re not in support of the top-down approach where a team of people come in and tell the experts what to do.

How are you measuring the impact of your design system?

We look at this the same way we would with the design of any other product. There are metrics to understand how people engage and where they engage.

We’ve also set up a Fluent Learning Series that brings people in to learn about tools, processes and important initiatives like inclusive design, accessibility, etc. We have design talks, tooling talks, tech talks, and many different ways to engage virtually as part of the community, or in person. We’re looking at what people respond to and how much engagement and follow-up we see. This is helping us grow and prioritize based on what people value.

How do you see the design system evolving in the years to come?

It’s always evolving because the technology changes so much. We also hope our cultural evolution continues to have a positive impact on the desire and commitment to better collaboration, trust and ownership of the effort. We’re focusing less on establishing the visual design language up front and more on ensuring we’re building a platform and environment by which we design and build products, processes, and an internal and external network. That way, when the next design tool comes, or design trend happens, or engineering framework, or even as new experience platforms surface, we’ll have an end-to-end system to leverage and evolve.