What Are Design Systems And How They Help Building Frontend Architectures

July 23, 2021
6 mins read
Last Updated August 23, 2021
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What Are Design Systems And How They Help Building Frontend Architectures

The companies are usually made up of only a few and small teams in their early startup days. There might even not be separate teams for UX/UI designers and frontend web app developers. Effective communication is one of the byproducts of having such a small group. 

However, once your product starts getting traction, you start to feel the need to bring in more members. Consequently, you put in an organizational structure in place to maintain sanity with the increasing number of members.

In this new structure, designers and frontend developers might not be in the same team. And if there are cross-functional teams, then there might be multiple such teams. The problem starts when multiple teams working on the frontend aren’t always on the same page. In the absence of any sort of guidance, they unknowingly start to deliver varying user experiences. And you never want that to happen.

A consistent user experience not only solidifies your brand image but also simplifies frontend development which in turn helps you save resources. A design system helps organizations maintain that UX/UI consistency and simplify the frontend design and development processes.

In this article, we’ll deep dive into what a design system is and also go through some of its subsets. To understand the importance of a design system for any organization eyeing scaling, we’ll explore various real-world examples and learn what kind of problems a design system solves for you. So let’s get started.

What is a design system?

It’s an exhaustive and organized collection of components, principles, tools, and rules that answer every question related to product design. It also evolves continuously to accommodate the latest tools and technologies in product development.

However, sometimes companies have a slightly less comprehensive set of guidelines in place to guide designers and developers to deliver consistent user experiences across interfaces. A couple of systems comprising of such guidelines are:

  • Pattern library: It’s a subset of the design system and consists of a set of reusable building blocks grouped together on varying parameters. It also establishes the rules to use these building blocks for product development.
  • Style guide: Another subset of the design system, it’s the documentation that consists of guidelines for how the product is presented across different touchpoints. It brings cohesion among the multiple contributors during product development.

Design systems, pattern libraries, and style guides objectively lay down the rules that must be followed. And when everyone adheres to the same principles, things automatically start falling into place. You and your users start noticing a beautiful synergy binding your organization’s components, interfaces, and websites together.

Bringing an extensive design system might seem like too big of an exercise for smaller companies. However, the sooner you have the system in place, the easier it will be for you to accomodate the needs of the future. Let’s have a quick look at some of the primary benefits of a design system.

Why do you need a design system?

  1. Faster time to market: A design system eliminates the need to reinvent the wheel every time a designer or developer sits down to work on a frontend element. Either the library of resources will have a component that can be readily used or the available guidelines will take care of some of the brainstorming. Moreover, since disputes are less likely to occur, companies are able to ship products much faster than without a design system.
    Moreover, design systems evolve with time. So if some team runs into a roadblock during development, they modify the design system accordingly. This saves other teams from running into similar issues in the future.
  2. Improved UX quality & consistency: A lot of brainstorming and consultation goes into what makes it to the design system. The templates, modules, and components are ensured to be of superior quality and then the same reflects throughout the product’s frontend.
    And when it comes to consistency, a design system acts as the single source of truth that all teams can refer to. As mentioned earlier, this helps produce a product that delivers a consistent user experience across interfaces.
  3. Enhanced collaboration: In the absence of a regulated set of guidelines, designers and frontend developers often find it difficult to agree on multiple grounds. Designers, at times, would go about designing without thinking much about the functionality aspect and simply hand over the designs to developers. And then sometimes, developers might introduce a few changes in the design to take care of functionality. With a design system, you get to leave all these issues behind. The guidelines take care of aesthetics as well as functionality and ensure designers and developers work towards a common goal.
  4. Reduced costs and fewer errors: With a faster turnaround time and fewer elements to create from scratch you save some valuable design and development hours which can be otherwise used for productive tasks. And since a design system is constantly used by multiple teams and individuals, it’s much easier to isolate errors at an early stage. And with every error isolation, the design system leaves lesser room for errors and streamlines frontend development.

Let us now have a look at some real-world examples of organizations using design systems and its subsets for smooth scaling.

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USA Today’s Design System Asks All The Right Questions

With a host of developers, designers, and journalists in their employ, USA Today found itself struggling with the inconsistencies seeping into the system because of individual preferences. The massive scale of the organization with its countless participants made it difficult for them to:

  • Maintain a consistent brand: The varied font styles, orientations, spacing, and other elements left the readers with an inconsistent user experience.
  • Keep the TAT to a minimum: With no single source of truth in place, designers and developers often had to build modules from scratch using their intuition.
  • Continue scaling with ease: Due to the lack of frontend strategy and guidelines, they couldn’t scale seamlessly and often faced roadblocks during design and development.

Thankfully, it didn’t take them long to notice they had no single source of truth, which happens to be the root cause of all these issues. 

They created new module categories based on their inventory. Further, they distilled all their style needs into style ramps. And then they also designed some documentation for improved organization.

Soon, USA Today adopted the CDD philosophy and created a central design system that’d be the north start for designers and developers alike during frontend development and scaling. 

They also realized that the best way for the literature to provide answers for everything was to ask questions while building it for documentation. So while breaking it all down into modules and components, they want you to seek answers to these five questions when looking at a component:

  1. What is it called?
  2. What is it made of?
  3. Which variants are needed?
  4. How does it scale?
  5. Which style variables are in use?

Well, what did they achieve with this exercise? 

USA Today’s design system turned out perfectly for their needs––i.e., to scale without affecting their brand integrity. However, it’s sometimes more about modifying the existing systems and applications.

Smartling’s Style Guide Made It Easier To Implement Changes

From receiving its Series A funding of $1.5 million in 2012 to reaching a valuation of $250 million upon its Series D funding, Smartling has exhibited tremendous organizational growth. And as they grew ever so rapidly, they also realized that the UI strategies that served them well in the past wouldn’t prove viable in the long term. 

This was because most of their design solutions were based on examples from small-scale applications. So it was only a matter of time before their old methodology started causing trouble. 

Their primary challenge was the difficulty in making changes. A single component was usually deployed at many places within the site, and developers ran the risk of a complete breakdown if changes were made at one location.

So how did Smartling get rid of this snag? 

They built an interactive style guide to bring cohesion among their UX, product and engineering teams.

They intended it to become a common ground for designers and developers. It allowed them to isolate components and work on them independent of the application. It allowed them to work faster and see changes quicker.

Now, when there is a request for a new feature, they first check if any new components are needed. If so, they develop one following the style guide and add the component to the library before moving to subsequent stages of feature addition.

The library versioning and style guide ensured easier changes and helped modify the frontend according to ongoing trends. Also, they kept a check on design inconsistencies with the interactive style guide to keep the design and dev team on the same page.

Smallcase Kept Issues At Bay With Falcon Design System

Smallcase is a fintech startup that helps users make smarter investment decisions. As their platform grew in popularity, they noticed a bottleneck arising in their subscription-flow management. Initially, the subscription flow was decoupled with the microsties, which made small changes a raging headache. 

To resolve this issue, they turned the subscription flow into a standalone application under the micro-frontend architecture. After orchestrating the application through client-side and built-time compositions, they succeeded in dealing with most performance snags.

Unfortunately, they now had before them a whole another steep hike uphill. They wanted to maintain UI consistency across all the different micro apps at their disposal. Smallcase exhibited how one can prevent this from becoming a significant issue––by adopting a design system right from the get-go.

Many consider deploying a design system an extra expenditure of resources for smaller scales. While it might be a valid concern for some cases, examples like Smallcase highlight the hefty dividends of taking a more visionary approach.

Pipedrive Preserved Consistency Using ConventionUI Working With Scattered Teams

Design standards can be challenging to implement when the designers are scattered across different locations and teams. Pipedrive has more than 600 employees in the organization working from different parts of the world. And as if that’s not challenging enough, they also have no design standards in place. The delocalisation of designers made it ever so difficult for them to implement a system that’d bring consistency across designs.

However, they still manage to keep the frontend fairly consistent using ConventionUI for frontend developments.

“Elements of ConventionUI are designed by product designers and developed by developers and added to the system. There are certain sets of rules while developing a ConventionUI component to keep the library maintainable.”

The ConventionUI lets them keep the designs consistent enough despite the high decentralized teams and the absence of a design system. However, it’d help if you did not confuse this with a sureshot solution. Still, there are many curve balls that ConventionUI can’t handle. It’d be best in the long run if you looked to implement an exhaustive design-language system.

The Wrap-up

Design systems are clearly the need of the hour for any growing organization. Implementing such a centralised design system helps:

  • Their designers are now creating consistent designs using the design system.
  • Their engineering teams can now get more creative and think out of the box to build new components with design-documentation guidelines.
  • Their product teams can perform robust testing on each element and ensure there are no hiccups while scaling the system. 

Simiform has helped multiple organizations as an extended part of their team over a span of more than a decade. And design systems have been commonplace whenever we deployed frontend teams. Our seasoned frontend engineers understand the need of such a system, and make it a point to develop frontends that are ready for the future too. Feel free to reach out if you are also interested in getting your frontend built the right way, and we’ll be more than happy to sit down and discuss your requirements.

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Hiren is VP of Technology at Simform with an extensive experience in helping enterprises and startups streamline their business performance through data-driven innovation.

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