“I look forward to going over the design system landscape so participants can figure out how to implement, scale, and maintain their design system in a way that works best for their teams and organization.”
Michelle Chin is a Design Advocate at zeroheight, a leading design system documentation platform, where she helps companies of all sizes and experiences to untangle the challenges they’re facing with their design system.
Michelle, we’re so happy to have you with us. You’ve been in the business for 20+ years. How did you “discover” the benefits of well-working design systems?
– There’s a saying, “it’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” This is true for seeing the benefits of a well-working design system. Creating a well-working design system is an outstanding achievement and should be celebrated, but it can take a long time. However, with every milestone you pass in creating a design system, there is always a benefit or “win” to celebrate. And the wins can spark a momentum that’s hard to stop.
– I remember many years ago having our design team use the UI library our design system designers created. We weren’t sure how well it would work, but the designers loved it and found value in the efficiency of their new workflow. It made us happy to see how we were helping the team. Later, we had our engineering counterparts create coded UI components that any team can leverage in their development. We were excited when we saw engineering teams actively using it because it showed they appreciated working more efficiently.
– Every milestone after that – documenting usage guidelines, creating a governance process, inviting contributions, and so on, all demonstrated the benefits of a design system and increased the scope of who it helped. It was thrilling for me – it was fun to experience all the different benefits we came across, see the excitement from others, and figure out all the new opportunities to take our design system to the next level.
What would you say are the most common design systems-related challenges that organizations are facing today?
– I think there are two significant challenges facing organizations today. The first one is usually around creating a design system out of several existing products, many of which don’t look alike. Teams typically try to figure out how to align a portfolio of products to one system. Visually that can be a challenge, but behind the scenes, it can be even more difficult if there are different teams, codebases, or processes. It can make aligning very strenuous.
– The other challenge is starting design systems in general. Design systems have come a long way in the past decade, and so much has changed with technology, tools, and methods. So I see many teams feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. But at the same time, many of the tools we have for design systems make it easy to start quickly. Years ago, you’d have to wait to do certain things like document your design system because you’d have to wait for designers and developers to have availability. Tools today make it easy to start right away without much effort.
Can you give a few examples of really great design systems and tell us a bit about why you think they are successful?
– We always dream of creating something like IBM’s Carbon Design System, Google’s Material Design, or Microsoft’s Fluent Design System. While they are amazing systems, many organizations don’t have the time or resources to create a design system as comprehensive as those and at the scale they serve.
– Some of my favorite design systems are lesser known. These design systems are “workhorses,” where they serve their design, content, and engineering teams well and where you can see them in action when you use the products they support. REI’s Cedar is the digital design system for the outdoor gear and clothing retailer. I love it because it includes tutorials to help designers and developers get started, consists of a comprehensive set of design tokens, and outlines many details, such as accessibility and content design guidance. Gitlab’s Pajamas design system is another favorite. I love it because it has a fun name and is easy to navigate and read, even with thorough documentation. I also like Shopify’s Polaris design system. They have several components in their design system, each well-documented with code examples and clear usage guidelines. Polaris includes a robust content design section, which a great design system should have, but many organizations often don’t include it.
What are you most looking forward to when it comes to leading the Design Systems track at Ambition Empower?
– I’m really excited to meet everyone and hear where they are in the design system journey. Design systems can feel intimidating and complicated, and my goal is to remove some of that mystery and untangle the complexity. There’s also so much new technology, tools, and methods to understand that it can feel impossible to keep up.
– I look forward to going over the design system landscape so participants can figure out how to implement, scale, and maintain their design system in a way that works best for their teams and organization.
Thanks Michelle! We’re so happy to have you onboard the Empower journey!
Read more about the new Design systems track here. It starts May 1st. Join before then, and use the code designsystems, to get 10% off.