A design system should be a hub for designers and developers to join forces and create unforgettable user experiences. That’s the stance of Nathan Mitchell, design manager and chief interaction designer at National Instruments. In this interview, Mitchell talks about collaboration and how to communicate the value of a design system.
You’ve said your design system is “like a shelf of parts we can pull from to design products and user experience.” What exactly do you mean by that?
Essentially, it communicates our current state of design and the products designers can use. Designers look at the shelf for guidance on building new products. That helps us create more consistent user experiences.
It’s also a constant in a world where the people, projects, and products are the variables. Because it hosts those products and their documentation, it’s a source of truth that helps solve problems when people aren’t necessarily aligned on what to do.
It takes a lot of communication and diligence to make sure a design system is used in the way it was intended. You have to continually maintain it to keep it relevant. It’s not a thing that you do and then move on to the next thing.
What’s clear to you about design systems that other people might misunderstand?
When I’m reading about design systems, it always seems like people miss the relationship with engineering. A great piece of content can be well-intended and well-designed — but it’s not realized until it’s in code. Somebody has to build the parts on that shelf.
So, it’s crucial to understand that design architectures and code architectures should be created together in a design system. There has to be a collaboration with engineering. Design organizations can’t do this alone.
You’ve been really proactive about advocating internally for the design system. How are you building support for it?
We built our design system from the ground up. We didn’t have leadership telling us to go out and create it. So we have to be scrappy about raising awareness. I’ll find any avenue I can to interject it into discussions. I also have a link to it in my email signature.
If somebody’s wondering about something we’ve done before, I’ll recommend they check out the design system to see if the solution’s there.
Our system is about two years old — an adolescent if you want to think of it as a stage of maturity. It’s not driving design outcomes just yet, but it can help answer a lot of questions for designers, engineers, and product owners. If they have a problem that’s been solved before, the design system will show them the solution. We don’t have to reinvent something for every situation.
What are some of the pitfalls people might encounter when developing a design system?
The concept of a design system is kind of foreign to people outside the design community. It’s also ambiguous to them. You have to do some internal marketing to raise awareness.
I suggest focusing on education — not only on the definition and benefits of a design system, but also the bits and pieces that contribute to it. That way it’s not just a high-level concept. Design impacts everybody in the company involved with product creation, so having a shared understanding of the design system’s role will be crucial to its success.
How are you measuring the impact of your design system?
At this stage, the impact is largely anecdotal. We hear stories that the system has helped people make decisions either faster or more consistently, and that it has helped us develop faster. But we need better measures.
If you fast-forward a couple of years, what do you hope the design system’s impact will be?
I would hope that all the products in our portfolio look like they came from the same company. And I’m hoping it allows us to create new products more efficiently. Ideally, the design system can solve 80% of the challenges in creating new software because it has information on all the problems we’ve already solved.
That lets us focus on the 20% of the new software that drives unique value. And we’re not spending 80% of our time on the simple things. We’re letting the simple things stay simple.
How do you think organizations’ approach to design systems will evolve?
Design-led companies are in a good spot — they have a leg up. But companies that weren’t always design-focused may start seeing design as a strategic lever to create better products and more profitable businesses. If that happens, then the way they apply design across their products becomes more visible and more important.
This is where the design system really comes into play because it’s a tool to scale design across the enterprise. It answers the question of how large companies can do design at a larger scale than they could do before.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in the past year, from a design perspective?
I’m proud of the fact that the design system has shifted the focus in how we think about design problems. We’re not thinking as much about a specific product or a specific feature — we’re thinking about design at a system level.
We used to design features without considering the impact on other features or products. But thinking of design as a system starts affecting how we think about it. In a system, design fits into a pattern and people realize they can apply existing designs to new problems.