When is it time to level up our design system?
In July 2018, I joined Customer.io as the third Product Designer in a 40-person team. I’d recently left a start up, partly because of the ineffective design practices that bogged down the entire team as we tried to build an app from scratch. There was no system in place — no shared styles of any kind — which made each new feature inconsistent and one-off. My dream was to be somewhere that embraced good product design as an evolving, shared system of styles, components, and practices.
Enter Customer.io. The automated marketing software company is experiencing steady, sustainable growth that isn’t reflected in their product’s design. The design is functional, and the product team is using some reusable components, but there is huge potential for a more effective and productive implementation of a design system. They hired me to spearhead the transition from styleguide to full-on design system — just the challenge I was looking for.
Why do I care about design systems?
There are a lot of reasons to use design systems — efficiency, scalability, and consistency just to name a few. But for me, the bottom line is that working somewhere that has a systematic approach to design allows me to focus my time on solving problems instead of rebuilding tedious components in Figma. And it helps me build designs I can be proud of.
How did we decide it was time to level up our design system?
Although I’d advocate for companies of all sizes to adopt design systems, Customer.io is particularly poised for this transition, and here’s why:
1. Market maturity
The automated marketing software industry is reaching the latter part of the growth stage of market maturity, which means a lot of the players are coalescing on a similar group of features. Although each company has a niche, features are no longer the only way to stand out. Design, both visual style and user experience, are a determining factor in a potential customer’s choice between competitors. Improving our design system will allow us to make scaled improvements to our visual style and user experience.
2. Growing product team
Until 2018, Customer.io only had one designer, and most of the product management work was done by the leadership team. In the last year, the product team as grown to include two product managers, three designers, and a Director of Product.
It’s not effective to use word-of-mouth and memory to store our design conventions and practices with a team this large. An incomplete design system makes it hard for different feature teams to make design decisions that are aligned and informed.
Customer.io has expanded greatly from its roots in email. We now support push, SMS, and webhooks — companies can reach their customers in whatever way suits them. We’ve also evolved to focus our business on the human side of messaging: how can we help companies build relationships through their messaging campaigns? It’s time to brand the company in a way that reflects these changes.
Rebranding is a great opportunity to improve a design system because styles and components will need to change anyway. While implementing new colors, typography, and visual style in the product, it makes sense to document those changes and propagate them systematically.