Why most design systems are broken, and how to fix them

Why most design systems are broken, and how to fix them

9 minute read

Why most design systems are broken, and how to fix them

9 minute read

Why most design systems are broken, and how to fix them

Lizzie Bruce

Freelance Content Consultant

I'm going to get straight to the point. A lot of design systems leave content out. That’s why they are broken. They might include a bit of microcopy, but apart from that they largely ignore content design considerations. This is detrimental to product design – and ultimately the user experience.

A design system without content guidance is missing vital parts. It’s an engine without a carburettor. A football team with half its players on the bench. An underground system with no escalators. A balloon without air. 

You can’t complete any product design puzzle with pieces missing. You need to use all available tools to work it out: research, guidance, knowledge, skills, user testing. The design system, your how-to manual, your point of reference, falls under guidance and knowledge. It is something you can lean on to make the best possible first attempt at designing a new product or improving an existing one. 

If you leave content out of the system, you’re drastically reducing its efficacy. Without content, can it really even be called a design system? 

Possible explanations for why content gets left out

It’s puzzling why design systems so often don’t consider content, but it might be down to one of these things:

1) design and content teams working, workshopping and meeting up separately
2) a backdated view or misunderstanding of content as being “just words” 
3) feeling of threat about content design encroaching on traditional design territory

Taking these in reverse, hopefully it’s not often the third reason: which is not only counter-intuitive, it also breaks many elements of “design thinking”, like:

  • be radical – question status quo
  • be fluid, flexible and adaptable
  • try unusual approaches to see what works

Moving on to the second reason, many content professionals now have painstakingly described:

There’s not a lot I can add here, that I and others have not already said several times!

But looking more closely at the issue from the perspective of siloed teams could highlight a cause that comes with its own, very simple solution. I’ll delve further into that shortly.

What a design system that includes content looks like

A 360 degree design system could include:

  • Design principles
  • Design components
  • Content design patterns and modules
  • Content style guide
  • Brand guidelines: logo and artwork usage, typography
  • Brand guidelines: tone of voice
  • Best practice resources

How content boosts your design system

Content patterns

Established patterns allow content formations that work well: clear, usable, accessible wording and presentation, to be reused. You can create a library of modular content with:

  • small elements: for example how to write date ranges, 
  • presentation styles: for example how to present examples and quotes, how to style bullet point lists
  • longer form reusable content: for example paragraphs on an organisation’s stance on a particular issue

Content patterns can also offer a blueprint for multiple content items of the same type. They reuse the same word structures, so they highlight unique content, allowing easy comparison of similar items, like course details, or museum object particulars.

Read my article about content patterns, with practical examples.

Content style guide

Content patterns and modules can be demonstrated contextually and sewn in with design components. 

However, it’s also worth also including an indexed, quick reference content style guide where people can easily look something up. Such as, if it’s OK to use “eg” or better to write out “for example” in full. It’s the second by the way, as “eg” is an abbreviation of a Latin term, which is a double no in terms of readability! What’s more, some screenreading software may read it out to sound like “egg”. 

Similarly, you might wonder whether to put “10%” or “10 per cent”. The second is always better for accessibility, but again it’s Latin and could exclude low literacy and non-fluent users. So your style guide might recommend using “a tenth”, “10 out of every 100” or to state the exact stats. 

Watch Rob Mills’ webinar on creating a content style guide.

Brand guidelines

While we’re putting everything together in one handy place, let’s not forget branding. Brand guidelines will cover use of logo and brand artwork, plus tone of voice. 

Tone of voice, for any brand, is not usually monotone. There’s likely to be a range of tones for different circumstances. You might have an overall tone which is friendly but informative, or, say, fun and helpful. Some brands seem to have a tone which is “eager to please”, some are purposefully silly. But if a customer has not paid a bill, or you are talking to someone about a problem they’re having with your product or service, many general brand tones of voice would need to be dialled down. Or you may want to use a different, separate tone for serious communications. 

By including tone of voice in your design system, with examples of when to dial different tones up or down, you’ll make the design system not just more whole but more useful.

The beauty of including style and brand guidelines in your system is that:

1) you take away the requirement for the user, say a staff designer, to look in 3 different places before they can create an online form, ad or social media post

2) the whole, now complete, design system can be styled consistently, following the advice and expertise of all 3 teams: design, content, marketing

Watch Lauren Pope’s webinar on building a brilliant brand tone of voice.

Best practice resources

No matter how comprehensive your design system is, there will always be scenarios you don’t cover. Including a few design endorsed further resources to reference will stop your users finding and using something you wouldn’t recommend.

So for example you could reference Nielsen Norman Group’s usability research and Content Design London’s Readability Guidelines.

How to fix your design system: work together, content with design

Currently there’s a lot of usage by brands of the phrase “we’re all in this together”, referring to the pandemic we’re experiencing. Countless brand social media posts and emails to customers are deploying these words in an attempt to reach out to their customer base during a crisis.

It would do organisations well to remember this phrase, and turn it in on themselves. Design, stripped to the basics, is how things are presented to the outside world by an organisation. Yet this has been splintered into many disparate parts that often do not work together. You might have a design system, but the marketing team might not use it. They might right now be sending out centred-text jpegs to announce their operational changes in overly formal, complex language! Your organisation might have a style guide, and advocate for clear language in it, but the developers might not read it.

Co-create your design system

Work together. Design alongside content. Start by making a joint Design System. Sit everyone together in the same area of the same building, or book out the largest meeting room you have and work on it there for as long as it takes. Invite marketing to give input at joint workshops and to attend and give feedback at regular progress presentations. 

Have a proper, all-encompassing design system. Otherwise you’re just adding another thing to a design network. And even if you think you’ve clearly signposted the style guide or the brand artwork rules from your system, some users might not realise there’s essential design guidance to absorb and follow elsewhere.

Share knowledge through training and open feedback sessions

Give marketing teams design training and vice versa. Hold a cross-organisational quiz on the style guide. Make sure everyone understands why different teams advocate as they do. If someone understands the logic behind something they’re less likely to think their opinion is superior to expertise from another team that’s based on studies and known best practice. 

Invite other teams to question and feedback, so that they don’t simply assume they can override guidance and publish something that is not consistent with it just because of their own professional take. 

Keep it up

Then keep working together. You’ve made a product as a whole team. Apply that pattern to other work and ways of working. 

I’ve worked in Agile teams where members are from different design sub-disciplines, for example content design, service design, interaction design, graphic design. The organisation had great training programmes and regular sharing of learnings within design communities. But therein lay the problem. It was communities not community. The design sub-communities were very separate. Interaction designers didn’t come to content lunch and learns or in-house conferences. Content designers rarely attended service design meetups, unless they could slip in.

Mix it up. Space might be an issue. So you could hold a series of the same meeting or workshop, with the same proportion of different types of designer at each and then share what came out of each in a digital presentation.

With everyone moving to online working, meetings and webinars while we work from home, it’s the ideal time to invite other disciplines to your team’s shared learnings session.

You might like to read my related articles: Why multi-disciplinary teams are good and The myth of digital transformation.

Design with content

Although I’ve been saying this for a long time, thankfully I am not the only one saying it! Rachel McConnell at Clearleft and Sarah Richards at Content Design London have been banging this drum too. And Lou Downe, ex-GDS Head of Service Design, advocates for an end to end approach to service design. Find out more through the keep learning links at the bottom of this article.

A final word on design systems: test, test and test again

I feel like design systems should come with a warning. Something like:

Caution: you still need to do usability testing!

Good design is about communicating and collecting information clearly. Every piece of information is different. Every design situation is different. 

Having a design system isn’t an invitation to just peel and stick. You need to test your prototype in situ. What works in one context might not work in another. This was heavily stressed by Tim Paul, GDS Head of Interaction Design, at February’s open to the public Gov Design meetup #14: Design systems.

Takeaways

  • Without content, the system is broken.
  • Support a holistic design system, with everything in one place.
  • Work together with other design disciplines and production teams.
  • Test your designs.

Keep learning

I'm going to get straight to the point. A lot of design systems leave content out. That’s why they are broken. They might include a bit of microcopy, but apart from that they largely ignore content design considerations. This is detrimental to product design – and ultimately the user experience.

A design system without content guidance is missing vital parts. It’s an engine without a carburettor. A football team with half its players on the bench. An underground system with no escalators. A balloon without air. 

You can’t complete any product design puzzle with pieces missing. You need to use all available tools to work it out: research, guidance, knowledge, skills, user testing. The design system, your how-to manual, your point of reference, falls under guidance and knowledge. It is something you can lean on to make the best possible first attempt at designing a new product or improving an existing one. 

If you leave content out of the system, you’re drastically reducing its efficacy. Without content, can it really even be called a design system? 

Possible explanations for why content gets left out

It’s puzzling why design systems so often don’t consider content, but it might be down to one of these things:

1) design and content teams working, workshopping and meeting up separately
2) a backdated view or misunderstanding of content as being “just words” 
3) feeling of threat about content design encroaching on traditional design territory

Taking these in reverse, hopefully it’s not often the third reason: which is not only counter-intuitive, it also breaks many elements of “design thinking”, like:

  • be radical – question status quo
  • be fluid, flexible and adaptable
  • try unusual approaches to see what works

Moving on to the second reason, many content professionals now have painstakingly described:

There’s not a lot I can add here, that I and others have not already said several times!

But looking more closely at the issue from the perspective of siloed teams could highlight a cause that comes with its own, very simple solution. I’ll delve further into that shortly.

What a design system that includes content looks like

A 360 degree design system could include:

  • Design principles
  • Design components
  • Content design patterns and modules
  • Content style guide
  • Brand guidelines: logo and artwork usage, typography
  • Brand guidelines: tone of voice
  • Best practice resources

How content boosts your design system

Content patterns

Established patterns allow content formations that work well: clear, usable, accessible wording and presentation, to be reused. You can create a library of modular content with:

  • small elements: for example how to write date ranges, 
  • presentation styles: for example how to present examples and quotes, how to style bullet point lists
  • longer form reusable content: for example paragraphs on an organisation’s stance on a particular issue

Content patterns can also offer a blueprint for multiple content items of the same type. They reuse the same word structures, so they highlight unique content, allowing easy comparison of similar items, like course details, or museum object particulars.

Read my article about content patterns, with practical examples.

Content style guide

Content patterns and modules can be demonstrated contextually and sewn in with design components. 

However, it’s also worth also including an indexed, quick reference content style guide where people can easily look something up. Such as, if it’s OK to use “eg” or better to write out “for example” in full. It’s the second by the way, as “eg” is an abbreviation of a Latin term, which is a double no in terms of readability! What’s more, some screenreading software may read it out to sound like “egg”. 

Similarly, you might wonder whether to put “10%” or “10 per cent”. The second is always better for accessibility, but again it’s Latin and could exclude low literacy and non-fluent users. So your style guide might recommend using “a tenth”, “10 out of every 100” or to state the exact stats. 

Watch Rob Mills’ webinar on creating a content style guide.

Brand guidelines

While we’re putting everything together in one handy place, let’s not forget branding. Brand guidelines will cover use of logo and brand artwork, plus tone of voice. 

Tone of voice, for any brand, is not usually monotone. There’s likely to be a range of tones for different circumstances. You might have an overall tone which is friendly but informative, or, say, fun and helpful. Some brands seem to have a tone which is “eager to please”, some are purposefully silly. But if a customer has not paid a bill, or you are talking to someone about a problem they’re having with your product or service, many general brand tones of voice would need to be dialled down. Or you may want to use a different, separate tone for serious communications. 

By including tone of voice in your design system, with examples of when to dial different tones up or down, you’ll make the design system not just more whole but more useful.

The beauty of including style and brand guidelines in your system is that:

1) you take away the requirement for the user, say a staff designer, to look in 3 different places before they can create an online form, ad or social media post

2) the whole, now complete, design system can be styled consistently, following the advice and expertise of all 3 teams: design, content, marketing

Watch Lauren Pope’s webinar on building a brilliant brand tone of voice.

Best practice resources

No matter how comprehensive your design system is, there will always be scenarios you don’t cover. Including a few design endorsed further resources to reference will stop your users finding and using something you wouldn’t recommend.

So for example you could reference Nielsen Norman Group’s usability research and Content Design London’s Readability Guidelines.

How to fix your design system: work together, content with design

Currently there’s a lot of usage by brands of the phrase “we’re all in this together”, referring to the pandemic we’re experiencing. Countless brand social media posts and emails to customers are deploying these words in an attempt to reach out to their customer base during a crisis.

It would do organisations well to remember this phrase, and turn it in on themselves. Design, stripped to the basics, is how things are presented to the outside world by an organisation. Yet this has been splintered into many disparate parts that often do not work together. You might have a design system, but the marketing team might not use it. They might right now be sending out centred-text jpegs to announce their operational changes in overly formal, complex language! Your organisation might have a style guide, and advocate for clear language in it, but the developers might not read it.

Co-create your design system

Work together. Design alongside content. Start by making a joint Design System. Sit everyone together in the same area of the same building, or book out the largest meeting room you have and work on it there for as long as it takes. Invite marketing to give input at joint workshops and to attend and give feedback at regular progress presentations. 

Have a proper, all-encompassing design system. Otherwise you’re just adding another thing to a design network. And even if you think you’ve clearly signposted the style guide or the brand artwork rules from your system, some users might not realise there’s essential design guidance to absorb and follow elsewhere.

Share knowledge through training and open feedback sessions

Give marketing teams design training and vice versa. Hold a cross-organisational quiz on the style guide. Make sure everyone understands why different teams advocate as they do. If someone understands the logic behind something they’re less likely to think their opinion is superior to expertise from another team that’s based on studies and known best practice. 

Invite other teams to question and feedback, so that they don’t simply assume they can override guidance and publish something that is not consistent with it just because of their own professional take. 

Keep it up

Then keep working together. You’ve made a product as a whole team. Apply that pattern to other work and ways of working. 

I’ve worked in Agile teams where members are from different design sub-disciplines, for example content design, service design, interaction design, graphic design. The organisation had great training programmes and regular sharing of learnings within design communities. But therein lay the problem. It was communities not community. The design sub-communities were very separate. Interaction designers didn’t come to content lunch and learns or in-house conferences. Content designers rarely attended service design meetups, unless they could slip in.

Mix it up. Space might be an issue. So you could hold a series of the same meeting or workshop, with the same proportion of different types of designer at each and then share what came out of each in a digital presentation.

With everyone moving to online working, meetings and webinars while we work from home, it’s the ideal time to invite other disciplines to your team’s shared learnings session.

You might like to read my related articles: Why multi-disciplinary teams are good and The myth of digital transformation.

Design with content

Although I’ve been saying this for a long time, thankfully I am not the only one saying it! Rachel McConnell at Clearleft and Sarah Richards at Content Design London have been banging this drum too. And Lou Downe, ex-GDS Head of Service Design, advocates for an end to end approach to service design. Find out more through the keep learning links at the bottom of this article.

A final word on design systems: test, test and test again

I feel like design systems should come with a warning. Something like:

Caution: you still need to do usability testing!

Good design is about communicating and collecting information clearly. Every piece of information is different. Every design situation is different. 

Having a design system isn’t an invitation to just peel and stick. You need to test your prototype in situ. What works in one context might not work in another. This was heavily stressed by Tim Paul, GDS Head of Interaction Design, at February’s open to the public Gov Design meetup #14: Design systems.

Takeaways

  • Without content, the system is broken.
  • Support a holistic design system, with everything in one place.
  • Work together with other design disciplines and production teams.
  • Test your designs.

Keep learning

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About the author

Lizzie Bruce

Lizzie provides content consultancy through Cake Consultancy Ltd. Motivated by creating user-focused, inclusive content she leads on Content Design London's collaborative Readability Guidelines project, and helps with content research, training and reports. She's also a freelance content designer at Scope, and writes for Prototypr and Digital Drum. With 17 years’ cross-sector content experience, including GDS, John Lewis and RNIB Lizzie's keen to share her learnings, and is currently creating a user-friendly intranet content resource.

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