Building Effective Communication and Collaboration for Design Systems Teams

Learn how to improve communication and collaboration for your design systems team with guest blogger Lauren Beatty, Staff Engineer at Zapier.

Lauren Beatty is a Staff Engineer at Zapier, and a fan of the very front of the front end. She's been lucky to work on Design Systems at different stages of evolution at a number of organizations, and loves to drive positive change through small decisions that scale exponentially.

As a design systems team, you’ve likely seen this happen. Your team is working on a cool new project. You deliver the feature, and at best, you hear nothing. At worst, you hear, “I wish we had known about this sooner, we could have used X feature.”

This is the classic pitfall of working in isolation as a platform team. A design system doesn’t work if you aren’t actively communicating and collaborating with your consumers.

The good news is there are lots of great ways to improve and build effective communication and collaboration for design systems teams.

Build a culture of working in the open

Design systems are meant to reduce friction for designers and engineers. Design systems are there to create consistency and to make it easy to create designs and products. To do that, we need to make sure that our system meets the needs of our product friends, and is built in collaboration with them. What could this look like in practice?

Regular listening tours with product teams. Check in with the teams you serve. What is working well for them? What problems are they having? What is on their upcoming roadmaps?

This information is a goldmine for design systems teams. It helps you prioritize what’s most useful to tackle. What common patterns are you seeing that could be part of the system? What problems are folks articulating that need to be solved at the system level? That’s what you should work on!

Office Hours. Have regular drop-in office hours. This accomplishes a few goals:

  • It creates a tight feedback loop with your consumers.
  • It builds trust with your consumers. Office hours let folks know that you are there to help! Trust is so important for a design system. If folks don’t trust the system, they’ll seek solutions elsewhere.
  • It builds system knowledge within your team. Having folks serve as office hours hosts builds their own knowledge of the system.
  • It builds system knowledge outside of your team. Folks that come to office hours are often the most invested, and then become evangelists for the design system on their own teams.

Promote your work

Working in the open is a GREAT place to start: it establishes lines of communication with the teams you serve, builds trust with your consumers, and builds design system knowledge and buy-in across the organization.

The next step is to start amplifying the work that your team is doing. Why? Platform work is less visible than product work. The direct impact of design systems is measurable, but its metrics are often not as well understood as product-focused metrics. In short, you need to shout out the value that your system brings to the organization...early and often! This builds visibility for the work that you’re doing, boosts team morale, and builds a culture of celebration around the design system.

What kinds of communication work here?

Bite-sized communications are fantastic!

  • Video demos
  • A feed channel of updates published along with a description of the value delivered
  • A feed channel celebrating “outside” contributions to the system
  • Keeping these communications short and focused gives folks the opportunity to quickly consume the content.

Big announcements! Sometimes your team works on a larger-scale feature or improvement to the system. This is the time to pull out all of the stops.

  • Publish a blog post/communication letting folks know what’s coming and when. This ties nicely with the concept of working out in the open. Bring this work up with teams during your listening tours. You don’t want folks to be surprised by this change. Ideally, teams are already in the know and in alignment with this change, but it’s smart to circulate this news widely. It’s important that folks understand the why behind the change. How will this deliver value to them?
  • Publish again when the change is released. Let folks know that the value is there for them to use! Give them the tools and documentation they need to be successful.
  • Finally, publish a follow-up piece letting everyone know what value this change delivered. This closes the loop for the organization. The team planned this work to solve X problem, we delivered it, here are the results!

Effective communication and collaboration are essential for the success of design systems teams. By building a culture of working in the open with product teams and promoting your work, you can increase visibility, build trust, and create a shared understanding of the value and impact of your design system. Regular listening tours, drop-in office hours, bite-sized communications, and product-like announcements are all great ways to improve communication and collaboration with other teams. A design system is never truly finished. Ongoing communication and education are keys to building your design system’s reach and impact on your team, your consumers, your organization, and your customers.

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