Always be listening

Go out and listen to what people say about your design system and what you could be doing better.

Part of the design systems work is scouting for the information. Before you can “be in the room”, hang around the hallway and get as much information as possible to make educated choices about the next step the design system team should take.

This is the kind of background work that cannot be packaged in a work item and put on a Kanban board. This work is always in progress, never done. I came to believe it is, in fact, possible to become better at doing this work. Considering that this work is understood and respected on the design system team, and the team members don’t have to justify the time spent hunting for bits of product conversation, there’s still a few practical things that might improve the quality and/or volume of information coming out of that. I’m thinking of three:

  • listen to teams describe their plans
  • “hang out in the hallway”
  • hold design system office hours

Listen to teams describe their plans

One of the most powerful and, as far as I can tell, widely used way to stay in touch with the org is to be in the meetings dedicated to updates on the plans. If it’s a thing in your organization, if there’s a time and place for different teams to meet and discuss their plans, you definitely want to be there. Remember: always be planning!

A live meeting is very different from a documented plan. A document is neat, well-structured, and pleasant to traverse, — and often wrong. How exactly wrong is what comes out in a live meetings, the more questions people ask, the better. This is where you learn that

  • the Notes team and the Tasks team are working towards the big UI improvement goal, and each are going to ship a new version of their feature with a toolbar, — and each of the two are going to implement their own from scratch
  • the Reminders team low-key expected, with only a light touch of alignment with your team, that “the design system team is gonna ship a calendar component for us”
  • the Photos team are thinking about layouts a lot and just wanted to share, now that you’re in the meeting, that some of this work might be turned into a generic solution

It’s a good place to take notes of these things. After you spend enough time running a design system team, you’ll start intuitively preserving the team’s time and energy for the last-minute things.

“Hanging out in the hallway”

The most meaningful conversations are the ones between two people who trust each other. In such conversations, people will tell you that they don’t, in fact, feel that design system is helping them be more productive because the contribution cycle time is too volatile. Or they will say that, as a matter of fact, the date picker is broken, and they quickly forked and patched it. Being in a hallway and having such conversations complements metrics and gives them real meaning.

There’s no Zoom or Slack equivalent of a hallway though. The closest I’ve personally come up with so far is to show some work — in a situation where I’m only talking to one person — and listen to what they say. This one-on-one setting encourages honest talk, and showing the work centers the conversation around a particular scope or subject. Not the same, but still works.

Design system office hours

One of the ways to keep the conversation going and be an active listener in it is to host one. Design system office hours is just a random name, you can call it “design systems & brioche buns”, as long as the purpose is the same, which is to give people from the entire organization a space and time to talk about the design system, to bring up a range of topics, from plans and organizational dependencies to tools and update cycle.

Now, people don’t usually talk about design systems unless they’re deep into working on one. On the contrary, people from the rest of the org, at large, want to spend the least amount of time ever talking about the design system, same as they want to spend the least amount of time taking care of the CI/CD pipeline or discussing Figma plugins. But! people seem to like when their opinion is truly heard, and when there’s a place to share it, where it’s going to fit into the agenda. You want to provide such space, — just get the purpose right: it’s not to talk about the design system as much as it is to talk about how the design system can help and how it gets in people’s ways right now.

In hindsight, I should have put twice as much effort into making the design system office hours a trusted space for people to think out loud about their observations and expectations. To say what they think, and to ask for what they want. It took months and months of hard work from the design system team members to get the audience of the office hours to become comfortable with being active participants, to ask questions, to make suggestions, maybe even get into a hot debate sometimes.

With a little work, you can create an environment where, even though people work remotely and focus on their thing most of the time, you can still anticipate and get a lot of information from the rest of the org and redirect it to the design system team, so that the team could prioritize better and focus on important things.

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