How a tiny design team can create massive impact using a design system

In the summer of 2014, our design team of 4 designers at CogBooks was tasked with designing an entire suite of products that was positioned to solve some very hard problems in the field of higher education. 

It’s 2017, and over 10 of the products that we designed are now a part of thousands of people’ lives. With many of them saying very nice things about the products, I must say the designs have succeeded. In this article series, I’ll write about the process that came out of our work and learning.

So how does a tiny design team consistently deliver high quality UX in a complex domain (like education) for products that use cutting edge technology (like machine learning)?

To get the design right, product designers have to be mindful of a lot of things: users’ needs, the company’s mission, the product’s goals, domain knowledge, design principles and trends, device specific concerns and also project management and internal communication.

We realized that if the designer needs to figure out all these for every product, there’s no way a small team can deliver and iterate at the speed that’s needed in tech startups. To solve this, we created a design system that takes care of the parts of the design process that need not be worked out for every product. This had a tremendous impact on our productivity.

 With this design system in place, we were able to

  • Spend more time & attention on product specific needs
  • Spend less time re-working known Interaction Design patterns
  • Spend less time fixing common mistakes (such as forgetting about the empty state)
  • Spend less time doing project management and communication
  • Create designs that are aligned to the company’s mission

In the rest of the articles in this series, you can see how we built a design system based on research and set up a process that ensures its correct usage. 

Part 1 : Convincing the founders that a design system will add value

Part 2 : ‘Just enough research’ about the startup, the domain and the users 

Part 3 : Synthesizing research data into design system artifacts

Part 4 : Setting up a process that makes the most of the design system

Part 5: Externalizing the design system and process

I would really like to hear your thoughts about this article. Feel free to drop a comment or send a message.

Bonus article (part 4.1) : Making use of inspiration