An Event Apart: Scenario-Driven Design Systems

by Luke Wroblewski April 2, 2018

In her Scenario-Driven Design Systems presentation at An Event Apart in Seattle, Yesenia Perez-Cruz shared lessons learned building design systems for multiple brands/Web sites and how specific user-scenarios are key to making flexible solutions. Here's my notes from her talk:

  • Design systems have helped many organizations build better, more cohesive experiences faster. but what's really behind a design system? is it a set of components? a common language? or something more?
  • A good design system feels cohesive, unified, and connected. It achieves something.
  • Bad design systems fail when there's too much focus on elements and not enough focus on how common components work together to create an experience.
  • We need to start our design systems with user-scenarios, not with individual components.

Starting with Elements

  • Vox wanted a design systema nd common platform for their 8 brands and 350+ Web sites. They made a lot of assumptions in the beginning that didn't work. Primarily: a set of flexible, brand-agnostic modules with a theming system would give them the most range. Essentially, legos.
  • This approach was too focused on layout and the end result was that each of the sites felt too similar. Critical content and focus differences were missing. The end result did not not allow Vox to tell better stories faster, as it only defined common modules not ways to solve common user problems.
  • Vox learned they needed to start with something specific in order to develop a flexible system. You can’t start with individual components because successful design patterns don’t exist in a vacuum.

Starting with Purpose

  • The next iteration of Vox's design system started with people and content. What goals did the audience have? What range of content and tone needed to be supported? What was the editorial workflow of the people making content?
  • This requires user-scenarios driving design not hypothetical situations. We need to ground our design systems in tasks people and companies actually have not trying to account for "what if" ideas.
  • Instead of starting with an inventory of UI components, start with an inventory of core workflows/tasks, and then identify common patterns in these workflows. All patterns should solve a specific problem.
  • Identify core workflows and the patterns that need to support these workflows. Understand the role each pattern plays in a user’s journey. Define how the patterns work together to create a cohesive experience.
  • Thinking and organizing a design system in terms of workflows, makes it easier for teams to know which patterns to apply when faced with a user problem.
  • At Vox, a scenario-based design system allowed the team to turn 18 distinct templates into a unified structure. They identified common audience goals but supported variants driven by differences in content.

Supporting Variants

  • Variants can help components address specific user-scenarios by highlighting specific content that matters to audience goals. These content-specific components can be re-used across themes/brands.
  • Scenario-driven variations can help brands feel unique/deliberate vs. becoming too generic/unspecific.
  • Naming elements very specifically helps people agree on their function. This ensures each element supports the right level of customization & functionality.
  • How do we theme a design system? Brands need to support distinct visual designs that support the unique audience and content within a site.
  • When varying fonts across brands, you need a flexible type scale to ensure legibility across different font faces. Similarly, color variables can be used to manage different colors schemes across brands.
  • When should you support variations in your design system? Only add a layout if there’s a content need. Does it add value? Is it available to more than 3 brands? Is it a must-have for 1 brand?
  • When are variations in your design system a bad thing? Visual variation on components that serve the same function across brands and/or don’t do much to strengthen brand voice.

Finding a Balance

  • There's a constant push/pull between appropriate levels of consistency and customization. Finding the right middle ground is a constant process of iteration.
  • Successful design patterns don't exist in a vacuum. Instead of focusing on individual components, look at the ecosystem: the people, content, and complete design. Successful design systems solve specific problems and start with people & content.