Don't let your design system seem complete

Tosin and Henry from the NHS service manual team shared their recent work at last Thursday’s design huddle [1]. They covered their work on understanding and improving contributions to the service manual.

They shared some of their research. Talking about reasons people don’t contribute.

Some of the reasons were time, not knowing what contributing meant and how to do it.

Another reason revealed after was a feeling that the service manual was “put together by experts”. People feel intimidated. By the manual and from contributing. And that components/patterns were untouchable.

This matched something I had been thinking about recently. That the level of authority and professionalism in a design system helps sell it so teams use it. But increases the perception things are fixed. Done. And not open to change.

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

The more professional and finished something is, the less likely people are to add to it. Maybe a typo here and there. This happens with prototypes all the time. The more polished something is, you reduce the type of feedback you get.

If you do get more fundamental feedback. It’s often a total rejection. Rather than an iteration.

But when you present something less polished, you get more radical feedback. Feedback that feeds on an idea.

This is a fundamental tension for any service manual and design system.

The issue with the service manual is, to get people using it. You need to express the same sort of authority and completeness.

You don’t sell a design system with a sense of things not being thought of.

But doing so you also create a barrier for contribution. Because things look complete. Done. And done by “experts”.

It’s almost an impossible task. But every design system has to balance polish that sells implementation with openness to new ideas. And a sense that components or patterns aren’t final. They’re open to iteration.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the NHS service manual team tackle that balance.

If you own or feed into a design system. Make sure there’s a sense of openness to change. Be okay to give openness to feedback higher prominence. And show how things are in a state of development.

And make sure you do the hard work to dispel that a design system is only created by design system experts. It’s created and improved by any and every team that uses it.

Don’t let your design system seem complete

[1] The design huddle is an hour where all designers from NHS Digital get together and share their work or ask for help

Don't miss an article