2020 Design Systems Survey

From your friends at Sparkbox.

The 2020 Design Systems Survey reveals the lasting change that a successful design system can have on an organization. These results explore the challenges of having a design system that is built to last, from planning and managing changes to organizational adoption. These results also delve into what makes a design system mature and how these mature design systems impact the teams who use them.

By examining these perspectives from people who work directly with design systems, we hope to provide guidance to those looking to start or grow a design system that will last for years.

The Respondents

Sparkbox, a web design and development firm, directed this survey for the third year in a row (check out the 2018 and 2019 results if you missed them). This year, the survey received 269 responses.

The respondents were comprised of two groups:

  • In-house respondents who work on a design system for their organization
  • Agency respondents who consult with organizations on design systems

The two respondent types were asked different sets of questions with many overlapping topics. This allowed us to best understand their viewpoints on design systems. Each audience’s expertise brings value to the survey, so we will be acknowledging both types of responses.

This survey was shared across social media, in Slack channels, at web events attended by our team, at Sparkbox’s UnConference, with visitors on The Foundry, and was emailed directly to web professionals.

170 In-House Respondents

These respondents were made up of:

  • designers (42%)
  • developers (22%)
  • user experience specialists (19%)
  • managers (5%)
  • project managers (5%)
  • other disciplines (7%)

These respondents came from a range of company sizes, from a few team members to over 10,000 employees. They also came from various industries such as telecommunications, finance & financial services, retail & consumer durables, healthcare & pharmaceuticals, education, food & beverage, and many others.

99 Agency Respondents

These respondents were made up of:

  • designers (48%)
  • developers (20%)
  • user experience specialists (8%)
  • managers (7%)
  • project managers (7%)
  • other disciplines (10%)

A majority of these respondents (79%) came from agencies with under 200 employees.

In-House Design Systems

Learn how in-house respondents manage their design systems and deliver them to consumers.

Design Systems Are Getting Older

Most in-house respondents have had their design systems for three or fewer years (76%), though some have had their design systems for five or more (6%).

Approximately how long has your design system existed?

Approximately how long has your design system existed?
Less Than 1 Year25%
1 Year12%
2 Years24%
3 Years14%
4 Years6%
5 Years1%
More Than 5 Years5%
I Don't Know2%

Answered155

Fun fact!

69% of respondents have given their design system a name.


Design Systems Have Similar Elements

In-house respondent were asked to select the elements their design system contained from a list of 19 items and could write in other answers. Over 50% of in-house respondents reported their design system included the following elements—with color systems appearing in 95% of the design systems.

What does your design system contain?

  1. Color system (95%)
  2. Typography system (85%)
  3. Form components (78%)
  1. Navigation components (76%)
  2. Spacing system (72%)
  3. Usage guidelines (71%)
  4. Grid system (65%)
  5. Framework-specific components (React, Angular, etc) (61%)
  6. Accessibility guidelines (60%)
  7. Design files (59%)
  8. CSS code (59%)
  9. Brand guidelines (58%)
  10. HTML code (53%)
  11. JavaScript code (53%)
  12. Layout system (52%)

Design Systems Are More Than Just a Reference

The majority of in-house respondents answered that they have integrated their design system into the codebase in some fashion rather than using it as a standalone reference tool.

How is your design system primarily delivered to the consumers of the design system?

How is your design system primarily delivered to the consumers of the design system?
In an external codebase and consumed via package manager (npm, gem, composer, etc.)35%
Included in the main codebase20%
On a standalone documentation site where users primarily copy + paste or download files20%
In an external codebase and consumed by the main codebase(s') build pipeline11%
I am not sure10%
Other5%

Answered130

Design System Challenges

In the 2018 survey, we found that starting a design system required an executive champion and cross-departmental buy-in. In the 2019 survey, we found that adoption and maintenance were common challenges. This section explores challenges uncovered in this year’s survey.

This year, respondents shared challenges that span throughout the life of a design system. Three challenges stood out:

  1. Planning a design system that is built to last
  2. Managing changes to the design system
  3. Encouraging organizational adoption

Planning a Design System That Is Built to Last

In-house and agency respondents frequently mentioned needing a better plan and a more well-thought-out strategy.

In-house respondents were asked this open-ended question: if you had the ability to go back in time, what would you do differently with your design system? The most common in-house response mentioned having a better plan and a more well-thought-out strategy (18 out of 42 responses).

When agency respondents were asked why a client’s design system failed, they commonly reported the lack of a well-thought-out strategy (5 of 16 respondents).

Is your design system creating technical debt?

In addition, 42% of in-house respondents felt that the way their design system was originally built created debt for the organization’s technical or design departments.

When we asked how building the design system created debt, the two top responses were both related to a planning failure:

  1. Lack of planning (9 of 23 respondents)
  2. Failure to understand the magnitude of a design system (8 of 23 respondents)

Takeaway: Planning supports success

If hindsight is truly 20/20, planning and developing a clear strategy early in a design system’s life could contribute to its long-term success.

Are you planning a design system?

Learn how a Discovery phase can help you identify key details to make your design system a success. Or learn how to do an audit to decomp your website and identify and organize elements for future use.


Managing Changes to the Design System

What teams have maintenance processes?

In general, 63% of in-house respondents have a process for maintaining outdated, unused, or faulty components in their design systems. The age of the system impacted the likelihood to report having a meintenance process:

  • Only 44% of respondents with a design system less than one year old have a maintenance process.
  • For respondents with design systems that have existed for one year or longer, the percentage with a maintenance process grows to 77%.

The likelihood of having a process was also higher for those in-house respondents who called their design systems successful.

Does your organization have a process for maintaining design system components?

Does your organization have a process for maintaining design system components?
Yes, we have a processNo, we don't have a processI don't know
Not Very Successful Design System33%67%0%
Not Successful Design System50%50%0%
Neutral Design System56%38%6%
Successful Design System78%11%11%
Very Successful Design System100%0%0%

Answered105

Of the in-house respondents who reported their design systems to be unsuccessful, only 46% had a maintenance process.

Of the respondents who reported their design systems to be successful, 81% had a maintenance process.

Of the respondents who reported their design systems to be successful or very successful, 81% had a maintenance process. And that same group of respondents also viewed their change approval process as successful.

Of the in-house respondents who reported their design systems to be not successful or not very successful, only 46% had a maintenance process. Within this percentage, 55% of respondents perceived their maintenance process as unsuccessful.

Perhaps recognizing the complexity and importance in maintaining a design system, 89% of in-house respondents answered they rely on a single team and/or multiple teams to influence and approve changes to the design system.

Who approves changes to the design system?

Who approves changes to the design system?
A single team is responsible for approving changes.48%
A combination of a single team that manages the design system and a committee that influences decisions.25%
A cross-team committee is responsible for approving changes.16%
One individual oversees the design system.6%
We don’t have a standardized process for this.3%
Other1%

Answered79

In-house respondents with a formal or informal maintenance process answered this question.

Takeaway: Launching is just the beginning

Planning ahead for design system maintenance and approval responsibilities evidently contributes to the success of a design system.

Does your team struggle with maintaining your design system?

Discover the benefits of automated testing in the maintenance process and learn how your design system team is part of the product.


Encouraging Organizational Adoption

Since our first survey, respondents have reported adoption as a challenge, and that theme has continued this year.

In-house and agency respondents listed adoption as the top challenge faced in building, using, or maintaining design systems.

In-house respondents were asked an open-ended question about the biggest challenges they have faced in building, using, or maintaining their system. Adoption was the top answer, with 21 of 56 respondents mentioning it. When agency respondents were asked a similar question, the top reason was also adoption, with 8 of the 25 respondents mentioning it.

Respondents also highlighted the impact adoption has on a design system’s success.

If you feel that your organization’s design system was not successful, what were the primary reasons?

If you feel that your organization’s design system was not successful, what were the primary reasons?
Staffing difficulties53%
Adoption difficulties52%
Maintenance difficulties38%
Lack of an executive champion36%
Funding difficulties30%
Company or departmental changes22%
Other25%

Answered73

Respondents were asked to select all that apply.

When in-house respondents were asked from a list of six options for the primary reason their design system is not successful, 52% of respondents said adoption difficulties, placing it second (just behind staffing difficulties).

Check this out!

Just 41% of in-house respondents said that they were actually tracking the adoption of their design system.

Takeaway: Adoption is a priority

Perhaps recognizing the importance of adoption, just under half of the in-house respondents said that improving design system adoption is a top priority for this upcoming year.

Design System Maturity

In our first survey back in 2018, design systems were relatively new and unproven. In our 2019 survey, we noticed that everyone’s design systems were growing up. This year, we decided to ask about design systems that had lasting power to see if there were any lessons we could learn from them.

We asked our in-house respondents to rate the maturity of their design system.

  • 47% said they had an immature design system
  • 28% said they had a neither mature nor an immature design system
  • 26% said they had a mature design system

What Makes a Design System Mature?

In-house respondents were given a list of 15 factors and were asked on a scale of 1 to 5 if they were significant factors in contributing to a design system’s maturity.

Which of the following factors contribute to a design system’s maturity level?

Which of the following factors contribute to a design system’s maturity level?
Design system is part of the design and development culture4.57
Design system has support at the individual contributor level4.26
Design system has a high rate of adoption by groups within the organization4.17
Design system is used by all newer builds and all future builds4.11
Design system is included in development pipeline4.07

Answered105

Displays the weighted average of the respondents’ ratings (on a scale of 1 to 5).

Additional factors included that the design system:

  • is used by most or all of the organization’s applications/websites (3.98)
  • has support at the executive level (3.9)
  • is versioned (3.75)
  • has governance practices instituted (3.73)
  • is usability tested (3.7)
  • is accessibility tested (3.68)
  • has a roadmap (3.66)
  • employs automated testing (3.41)
  • has analytics to measure adoption (3.14)
  • has quality metrics for component versions (component scorecards) (2.99)

What do these top factors say about maturity?

Notably, the top three maturity factors indicate that the design system has become part of their team’s workflow and is well-supported by the organization’s user groups:

  1. The design system is part of the design and development culture
  2. The design system has support at the individual contributor level
  3. The design system has a high rate of adoption by groups within the organization

The fourth and fifth factors suggest that the design system has been incorporated into the technical architecture and processes of the organization:

  1. The design system is used by all newer builds and all future builds
  2. The design system is included in the development pipeline

Growing a Design System

When asked in an open-ended question why they gave their design system this maturity level, 27 of 30 respondents with an immature design system answered that they were still working on building their design system.

“We’re just getting started, and the culture of the organization is very siloed.”

“There’s still so much to be done in order to fully utilize the system across the entire ecosystem.”

“We haven't moved into code as the ‘source of truth’ for components.”

Of those with a mature design system, 9 of the 13 respondents said they ranked their design system higher because it solved their problems. In addition, 8 of the 13 respondents said their design system is still continuing to grow.

“Our design system is still evolving, but it does provide solutions for nearly all relevant use cases.”

Positive Culture Changes: A Lasting Impact

Both in-house and agency respondents highlighted how a design system can create positive cultural change.

Design Systems Are Creating Positive Change

When in-house respondents were asked if their design system contributed to a cultural change, 78% of respondents acknowledge a positive change in their culture.

In an open-ended question, respondents were asked to describe the cultural change. The following were most frequently mentioned:

  1. Better collaboration and cross-team collaboration (14 of 26 respondents)
  2. The team was allied around the importance of a unified system (8 of 26 respondents)
  3. Shared common processes and consistency (6 of 26 respondents)

“Contributed to better collaboration between designers and developers, since they have more of a shared vocabulary and can work more on valuable problem solving.”

“The design system acts as a rosetta stone that fosters a common language between designer and developer.”

Other cultural changes mentioned by three or more in-house respondents were improved efficiency and the inclusion of accessibility practices.


Even Agencies See the Change within Client Teams

Agency respondents also reported a cultural impact. When asked, 54% said they saw a client’s culture change due to the introduction of a design system.

In an open-ended question about the changes they have seen, respondents answered with the following top answers:

  1. Better communication and collaboration among their client’s teams (6 of 13 respondents)
  2. Consistency with the design system being a single source of truth (4 of 13 respondents)

“Due to the nature of a design system requiring buy-in and support from multiple disciplines, a design system project often helps break down organizational silos.”

“Better communication between product owners, UI/UX designers, and front-end engineers. We all have a single source of truth.”

Conclusion

These survey results show that creating and maintaining an impactful design system comes with challenges such as planning a clear strategy, managing changes to the system, and fostering design system adoption across the organization. Yet the long-lasting value of a mature design system—like collaboration and better communication—awaits after the hard work of overcoming these challenges is done.

Learn more about building, using, and maintaining design systems from the experts at Sparkbox.

Sparkbox has become an expert in design systems and works to continue helping others by creating content about design systems.

Are you looking for help building, adjusting, or maintaining your design system? Reach out to us for more information on how we can help!

Or are you interested in the full data set of this survey to run your own analysis? Download the file on Dropbox.

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