Without an effective plan to communicate what happens within your Design System, you’re not reaching everyone you should and missing out on valuable feedback and showcasing your Design System’s value. Communicating what the Governance does and what the Design System offers is the way you ensure consumers know about what you do so they can use it, but is also how you get feedback on how they use your artifacts to improve them too.
Sharing a lot of information to varied audiences is hard: you want your communication to reach its targets without wasting too much energy planning and writing it, but keeping it useful and relevant to everyone you contact.
Let’s first look into what the Design System and Governance gets out of communicating what is delivered and worked on, then move on to how to share all that information effectively, and finally turn all of that into an actionable template that you can go through whenever something comes up to figure out who needs to know about it and how to deliver that piece of information effectively.
The importance of Governance communication
Communicating about your Design System increases awareness of what it offers, which leads to adoption and feedback from teams and creates opportunities to highlight the value it brings to the company.
[A] design system’s promise is only fulfilled when it reaches critical mass. Developer-to-designer handoff, UI consistency, increased production speed for front-ends etc… We do paint a pretty picture when we promote systemic design approaches, but most of those benefits only become obvious if adoption is massive (if not unanimous) and if the system provides everything the adopters need.Benoit Rajalu
Your components and guidelines have no value if nobody uses them, increasing adoption is an important reason to communicate as your Design System’s value multiplies as teams and projects use it more and more. Feedback gives you insights into your consumers’ needs, which you can use to better your artifacts to serve those needs, and highlight them in your communications to show that your Design System understands its users and will help them reach their goals. Putting this offered value in perspective with company goals will also enable stakeholders to better appreciate the return on investment and how the Design System can be a cornerstone in higher quality products built cheaper and faster.
Announcing upcoming work and discussions is also a great way to ask teams for pointers and utilize their expertise. Nobody knows their own topics and needs more than your consumers so you should let them know of important discussions and new work coming up so they can share their vision, requirements, issues, solutions, … Taking advantage of the expertise found in teams in your company benefits your Design System by increasing its quality, benefits teams using the Design System who gain from the skills of people from other teams and projects, and also increases the sense of ownership of those getting involved, making them more likely to contribute again in the future.
[E]ach of the team brought specific expertise, so it made sense to have the designer with the most expertise about an element to build it themselves.Henry Daggett
How to make communication effective
The types of information that you might want to share are almost limitless :
- New artifacts created (component, guideline, mockup, tool, …)
- Evolutions of existing artifacts
- Upcoming and ongoing discussions
- Final decisions and their implications
- Milestones set, reached, or missed
- Success stories
- Changes in the Governanceernance itself
As we’ve already stated the audiences you’ll want to reach are also numerous, some are very knowledgeable about the Design System like frequent contributors or daily consumers, and some barely interact with it like managers and stakeholders. Not all audiences will benefit from the same pieces of information:
- Design System contributors will want to know about almost everything happening in the Design System and Governance
- Designers and developers will need to know about new artifacts and probably upcoming ones to share feedback
- Team members in QA or Product could benefit from a macro view of the new components that you’ve built recently
- Stakeholders will be happy to know you’ve reached important milestones and how your work affects the company’s ability to deliver quality products
Instead of trying to come up with every possible type of information to figure out how to handle it beforehand, we’ll instead go for a template that we can easily reuse every time something new comes up to assess the following :
- Do we need to communicate something at this point?
- To whom?
- How to best deliver it to each of the identified audiences?
With each audience come different needs regarding the communication medium, framing, and frequency. Daily instant communications about the status of ongoing topics may be fine for frequent contributors whereas managers or stakeholders will need once or twice a year long-form emails that summarize progress on important objectives. Crafting your communication with your audience in mind will also help frame it to highlight what they care about in your message.
Communications is hard because there are so many different types of people with different needs, vocabularies, and levels of system awareness.Nathan Curtis
The frequency of communication will vary based on how close people are to the Design System contributions :
- designers and developers consuming the artifacts will be happy with comprehensive weekly updates on new stuff and possibly upcoming topics
- feature team members including QA, Product, or backend devs will be fine with monthly updates on the big picture progress and condensed showcases on new components.
- C-level executives will want to examine how spending money on the Design System brings them returns maybe every year or so
Effective delivery of your message will rely on choosing the right medium as well. In order for your information to reach its target and stick, you’ll want to use existing channels and rituals as much as possible. Study your audiences and see where those groups meet and how you can reach them on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Find out how they already share information among themselves and plug yourself into those channels. For feature team members, important information could be shared during the daily sync meeting and less urgent communications could be delivered during a monthly meeting where teams show what they’ve been working on recently, including the Design System’s Governance showing its new artifacts for example.
Whenever possible, have people outside of the Governance share information for you with the groups they are a part of. Each feature team could handle how it shares information internally when you decide to share something with all members of all feature teams for example. This also serves multiple purposes :
- You ensure that at least that person knows the topic in that group
- They know best how to frame it for people in their group
- You make Design System topics spread into the rituals of various teams and part of normal activities
- You give autonomy to groups to share the information in organic ways that make sense to them
Having effective redundancy is more than just having a backup. It’s having a backup that will increase your capability under various scenarios where your primary doesn’t work.Graywolf Survival
When dividing people into audiences you might realize some people or roles end up in multiple groups ad will get the same information multiple times. That’s perfectly fine, redundancy is even a key aspect of resilient systems. There are many reasons why a single communication can miss its target :
- They saw the notification and then forgot
- They were on vacation when you did your presentation
- They just got into the company
- They didn’t listen when you spoke for some reason
If people end up in multiple audiences and groups and a piece of information is shared to overlapping groups it means the information is probably very important, so sharing it on different mediums and occasions is actually a good thing as long as you keep your communications to the point and frame them in ways that highlight their value to your audience.
Building our template
Here is the template I built for my Design System.
|Design System contributors||Daily||#ds-team Slack channel|
|Weekly||DS Governance meeting|
|Monthly||Cross-team Review meeting|
|Designers||Daily||#design-team Slack channel|
|Weekly||Design Chapter meeting|
|Monthly||Design Chapter meeting|
|Developers||Daily||#frontend-team Slack channel|
|Weekly||Frontend Chapter meeting|
|Monthly||Frontend Chapter meeting|
|Feature Team members||Daily||Feature Team daily status meeting|
|Weekly||Feature Team daily status meeting|
|Monthly||Cross-team Review meeting|
|Stakeholders||Daily||#announce Slack channel|
|Weekly||#announce Slack channel|
In it, you can see the different audiences that we plan to communicate to, and the preferred medium based on the frequency/importance we think applies to that piece of information. The audiences are ordered from closest to the Design System contribution to farthest. Quite often information that doesn’t need to be shared with one audience doesn’t need to be shared with subsequent ones.
Design system teams are often surprised and overwhelmed by the diverse array of messages they communicate to different audiences through different channels.Nathan Curtis again
You’ll notice that I’ve added a Documentation line. This is not really an audience but more of a way to consider if you need to capture a decision for future reference or update your documentation to reflect changes in the artifacts (Components status table, tools and processes documentation, guidelines).
When you’ve made that template for your own company and Design System, the next step is to get back to contributions and Governance work. When something comes up or gets done, go through the template, see if it makes sense to share something with each audience and how, and then plan that communication. It might seem time-consuming at first but remember the benefits: adoption, feedback, and showing your value; also as you repeat that process you’ll realize common types of work and information are often shared with the same audiences in the same ways and you’ll get more efficient at it.
The next 2 articles are not about Design Systems at all. One is about preparedness (for a non-ideal future) and the second one is about designing gardens that produce food and benefit their environment. Both of these address redundancy, critical aspects of systems in general, and how we should expect failures when planning our processes and look for opportunities to have multiple functions of our systems served by multiple elements.