A major bank with falling customer experience ratings, their new personal and small business banking platform was already 6 months behind schedule when they brought on 100 vendor resources on the project. What was the final impact of those additional teams? A project delivered 12 months behind schedule and a substantially increased budget. In terms of customer experience, pressures on the central design team meant that a mediocre experience became merely acceptable, with at best a modernized visual design. Squeezed between business and engineering in a defective delivery process, there never seemed to be enough space for designers to go beyond the basics to create an outstanding customer experience, to say nothing of innovating in the financial services space.
Enterprise digital and design leaders simply should not accept this as business as usual.
Chief Digital Officers and global heads of design understand that, for almost every business, digital customer experience is becoming a necessary core competency. Every company is now a software company, and we see enterprise organizations quickly build digital teams and evolve their digital maturity to create customer experiences at scale.
But with more teams comes more complexity in coordination, and more siloed work processes and decision making. As product offerings and platform ecosystems grow, there is more complexity in technology and more duplication of design. The new world of hybrid work means hiring and coordinating teams across the globe and competition for recruitment against companies with more mature digital product development practices. When projects are run by disparate teams lacking a shared foundation, the organization inherently misses out any built up knowledge and efficiencies of scale as projects spin up and down.
What fundamentally drives us at Engine Digital is the understanding that your customer's experience of your company defines your brand. Design systems are an absolute necessity for enterprise digital product development and creating outstanding customer experiences at scale. Here I want to talk about the business benefits of enterprise design systems and help you make the case for your design system investment.
A 2018 McKinsey study has shown that enterprise companies with the best design practices outperform their industry peers by as much as two to one in both overall revenue and return to shareholders. Further studies have shown that, on average, every dollar spent on user experience (UX) results in a 100x return. Yet shockingly, as recently as 2020 66% of CEOs surveyed don't understand what their senior design leads even do.
McKinsey identified 4 factors that ensure companies can succeed in providing outstanding customer experience to customers and better returns for their business:
Design leadership driven by data
Design as a cross-functional practice that breaks down silos
Continuous iteration based on customer feedback
Attention to the customer experience across all touchpoints
The problem is that, as companies deliver experiences at scale—particularly those enterprise companies with immature digital delivery—implementing successful customer experience practices becomes more complex and costs increase.
We've all had that experience. Moving between screens on our banking portal, or tools within a cloud-based SaaS platform, we are jarred by completely different UX interactions and visual design. As a company expands its digital offerings, elementary design decisions that align the brand and define basic patterns across products are repeatedly made from scratch by teams, eliminating any economies of scale and creating a disjointed impression with users.
On the development side, as companies continue to build capabilities in house it becomes more complex for product and design leadership to align teams. Hybrid work is only further driving the tendency towards global, distributed teams, making communication across silos more difficult. And throwing traditional system integration partners into an already broken process is often a recipe for missed project budgets and timelines.
Design systems—a reusable set of components in both design and code, governed by a set of standards—are both an essential tool and a set of practices that allow companies to improve the customer experience across their digital portfolio while reducing capital spend and increasing revenue.
We organize design systems into two layers:
The Design Layer – which includes all aspects of a design kit including Tokens, Components, Modules, Pages, Templates, and Patterns – the building blocks of all digital products and services comprising UI design and front-end code.
The System Layer – comprising the Developer Sandbox, Documentation and Guidelines, a Feedback Loop, and your Governance Model – together, enabling the design system to operate across the enterprise in a consistent, efficient, and high-value way.
Design systems allow companies to solve for and align product teams around key foundational design decisions up front, including:
Typography, spacing, grids, and breakpoints
Buttons, images, cards and other atomic elements
Larger reusable composite elements such as product display pages (PDPs) or data visualizations
An initial design system effort allows teams to solve these challenges once, giving more space for product teams to focus on finding UX solutions that empower and delight users, and ultimately deliver higher value to the business.
By building a set of components in both design and code that can be used across digital products, across touchpoints (desktop, mobile, in-store kiosk etc.), and even across brands, product teams are not wasting time duplicating solutions. Bug fixes and UX improvements can be rolled out across the brand’s digital ecosystem. And with an effective governance process, improvements identified by product teams can be evaluated by the design system team and shared across other products.
Even for teams experienced with componentized development, ensuring those components are developed with an eye for maximum reuse and governed by a process that accelerates the release of new experiences is key to a successful design system implementation. Often we find teams forking a central set of components when they feel they don't work for their particular challenges. Or companies tell us they have as many as 5-6 separate design systems, eliminating the potential efficiencies gained by a single set of shared components.
When designers and engineers can work together and focus on difficult problems that drive value for the business, this is where the magic happens.
With a well maintained design system, teams can spin up innovative experiences and test hypotheses with real users quickly. Product managers can efficiently deploy AB tests of different product experiences. And coupled with a CMS powered by design system components, business leads and site operators can create experiences and make updates without extensive developer involvement.
Building an enterprise design system can seem like a very abstract investment. "Wait," digital leadership asks, "I am spending money on a project, but not getting a product at the end of it?" "We are funding a team that doesn't directly deliver customer value?"
Making an effective case for investing in a design system requires understanding the goals and motivations of stakeholders, and clearly outlining the positive downstream impacts and return on investment.
Business leadership –
Reducing spend in digital
Driving increased revenue through improved customer experiences
Innovating and testing new ideas quickly in market
Design leadership –
Standardizing what good design means and scaling its impact
Ensuring brand alignment across the digital portfolio
Reducing time spent on low-level decision making
Enforcing best practices in UX and accessibility at the component level
Creating alignment between business needs & product teams
Technology leadership –
Leveraging global talent while ensuring the quality of front-end experience
Giving teams autonomy to solve specific product challenges while maintaining consistency
Improving future adaptability and scalability across the technology portfolio
So you've managed to work with stakeholders and build consensus around the need for investment in a design system effort. On top of the benefits of brand consistency, customer experience, and potential for innovation, someone is going to ask (probably your CFO), how much money is this going to save us really?
An excellent article recently released by Maximilian Speicher & Guido Baena Wehrmann in Smashing Magazine outlines a detailed formula you can use to help you build the ROI portion of your business case. I highly recommend you look at how they break down their calculation, but the variables to take away are:
The effort invested to initially build and ramp up the design system
The time required to maintain the design system over its estimated 5 year lifespace (based on average changes to brand and technology updates)
The efficiencies gained once the design system is fully ramped up—an average of 38% productivity gains for design teams, and 31% productivity gains for development teams
In the example they give for a fairly small team of 5 designers and 10 developers, the savings was nearly $900K, or an ROI of 135%, over the life of the design system. For enterprise programs spanning 100 team members or more, multiplied across multiple lines of business, that ROI will be exponentially increased.
Last minute resistance at this point of the process is all too common.
“Yes, we need a design system, but not now.”
With the end of Covid, the return to baseline revenue growth from digital, and the upcoming downturn in the economy, focused investments that both increase revenue and reduce costs are more important now than before.
“Yes, but we are already building one.”
In our experience, companies are often only building a piece of the entire system. They either have a design kit and lose the efficiencies on the code side. Or they have built components but haven't thought about the process around how consistency is maintained and updates are deployed. Many organizations are simply not realizing the full value of an end-to-end design system implementation.
“Yes, but we already have 1 (or 2, or 5).”
This is common in the enterprise space, as various teams or vendors have created their own component libraries independently. In this situation you are missing the benefits of alignment and scale. As part of our [[Design System Playbook]] we can help you audit what you have today, identify gaps, and make a plan to help you move towards a design system that maximizes efficiencies for your teams.
To demonstrate that your ongoing design system investment is well spent, and the time put into maintaining the system is saving the time of your product teams delivering value to customers, it is important that you define what success looks like for your design system effort and the metrics that track that success. In another post on Setting Up Your Design System for Success we outline key quantitative KPIs such as adoption rates, component usage, and team velocity improvements, and qualitative KPIs such as team satisfaction and rates of contribution to the system. Reporting on these measures will help you communicate success to your leadership on an ongoing basis.
In Speicher & Wehrmann's article they suggest the effort to initially build a design system to be anywhere from 6 to 12 months or more, with up to 40% of your team's time allocated to the initial setup.
Working with a partner like Engine Digital reduces your design system ramp up time, allowing you to realize those gains in efficiency faster. Working with us also allows your teams to continue to focus on delivering customer value while the system reaches critical mass and can enable them to build better experiences at scale.
At the same time, essential to our design system engagements is how we work in partnership with your team. Whether you are opting for a federated vs centralized governance model, we want to make sure your experts are involved at every step of the process to ensure:
You understand the system and choices made
You bring valuable knowledge about your business, customers, and organization
You feel confident adopting and maintaining the system going forward
Your brand’s promise and customer confidence are reflected through seamless customer experiences built at the intersection of great design and solid technology, and Engine Digital is uniquely positioned at that intersection to help you on your design system journey.
Design systems are not a new concept in the design and development worlds, and there are a lot of exciting things happening at the bleeding edge, It is still the case, however, that traditional enterprises may not have heard about design systems, may not understand what a well established design system looks like, or may not understand how to best govern their design system to maximize efficiency, drive better customer satisfaction, and ultimately get the most return on their design system investment. Hopefully we’ve been able to help you build a case to begin those discussions with your leadership, and reach out to us directly and we can help you evaluate where you are on your design system journey.