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The 2021 Design Systems Survey by Sparkbox

Welcome to the fourth edition of Sparkbox’s Design Systems Survey

This year, we delve into design system priorities and challenges, including adoption, contribution, and debt. And we explore the evolution of design systems, including the experiences of organizations developing new (or additional) design systems.

Sparkbox, a web design and development studio, directed this survey. This year’s survey was shared for four weeks across social media platforms, in Slack channels, with visitors on The Foundry, and in emails to web professionals.

The Respondents

In-house and agency respondents were asked a different set of questions with overlapping topics. In-house respondents offered insight based on their direct perspectives with design systems at their organizations while agency respondents offered insight into their client’s experiences.


376

Responses

217

In-House Respondents with design systems at their organization

159

Agency Respondents who have worked on a design system within the last year

Fig 1.1376 Responses

What is your primary discipline?

In-House

39%

Development

36%

Design

12%

User Experience

Agency

52%

Development

21%

Design

12%

User Experience

Fig 1.2Responses: In-house: 217; Agency: 159

The remainder of the respondents were split between project/product management, management, and other.

What most closely describes your role?
 In-houseAgency
Individual contributor (developer, designer, etc.)64%56%
Manager24%16%
Executive4%6%
Owner4%8%
Freelancer or independent consultant4%14%
Fig 1.3Responses: In-house: 217; Agency: 159
How many people are employed by your organization?
 In-houseAgency
1-50 Employees10%54%
51-2,000 Employees43%33%
2,001-10,000+ Employees47%13%
Fig 1.4Responses: In-house: 217; Agency: 157

What is your organization’s industry?

In-house respondents represented a diverse array of industries such as finance/financial services, telecommunications/IT hardware & software, healthcare & pharmaceuticals, and many more.

Characteristics & Teams

The elements in your design system and the team creating them are foundational to building a quality product. Let’s learn more about the commonalities across our in-house respondents’ design systems.

“In your opinion, how successful is your organization’s design system?”

Almost 40% of systems were successful or very successful
Not successful4%
Slightly successful19%
Moderately successful38%
Successful31%
Very successful8%
Fig 2.1Responses: 159

Most in-house respondents felt that their design system is either moderately successful (38%) or successful to very successful (39%).

It has not only outperformed in terms of KPIs, but it has also allowed us to scale more work with fewer people.

“Where did the idea for your current design system begin?”

Individual contributor(s) suggested starting a design system
Individual contributor(s) suggested starting a design system57%
Leadership suggested starting a design system22%
A third party suggested starting a design system3%
A combination of one or more of the above2%
I am not sure/other16%
Fig 2.2Responses: 171

Design systems have similar elements

"What does your design system contain?"

Color system

95%

Typography system

89%

Form components

89%
74%

Navi­gation compon­ents

74%

Usage guide­lines

73%

Spacing system

71%

Design files

70%

CSS code

69%

Frame­work-specific components

65%

Accessi­bility guidelines

64%

Grid system

64%

Layout system

61%

HTML code

60%

Brand guide­lines

57%

Java­Script code

50%

Example page temp­lates

46%

Content blocks

36%

Voice & tone guide­lines

21%

Anima­tion system

6%

Other

Fig 2.3Responses: 171 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply from a list of 19 items with an option to enter other answers.

16 of the 19 elements were all contained in over 50% of the in-house respondents’ design systems.

Most in-house design system teams contain design, development, and UX expertise. Many teams reported needing more resources from product/project management, research, and strategy.

Teams are lacking certain disciplines
 “Which disciplines do you currently have on your design system team?”“Which disciplines are you currently missing on your design system team that would be useful right now?”
Design94%9%
Development87%23%
User Experience71%16%
Management41%26%
Project/Product Management30%47%
Research25%44%
Strategy19%37%
Marketing6%26%
Other10%15%
Fig 2.4Responses: 374

“Which disciplines do you currently have on your design system team?” Responses: 135 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply.

“Which disciplines are you currently missing on your design system team that would be useful right now?” Responses: 115 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply.


Most respondent organizations have centralized teams

“How is your design system team structured?”

Centralized

46%

of in-house respondents have a team dedicated to the design system, based outside of the product-and-features team structure.

Solitary

26%

of in-house respondents have one internal, pre-existing team that created a design system and owns it, though other teams also use the design system.

Federated

24%

of in-house respondents have individuals from various teams inside the organization manage the design system, and each of these teams uses the design system.

Fig 2.5Responses: 136

Priorities & Challenges

As noted in the 2020 Design Systems Survey, “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.” Design system teams focus on common areas — many of which highlight the importance of cross-team support.

"What are the top priorities your design system team has at this moment?"

Priorities
Adoption (developer, designer, etc.)42%
Contribution37%
Product road map36%
Overcoming technical/creative debt35%
Project management or process29%
Governance23%
Internal education21%
Proving Value21%
Staffing21%
Funding10%
Finding an executive champion7%
Subscriber engagement4%
Other6%
Fig 3.1Responses: 154 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply.

"What are the top challenges your design system team is facing at this moment"

Challenges
Overcoming technical/creative debt47%
Contribution45%
Adoption44%
Staffing39%
Internal education36%
Product Road Map35%
Governance34%
Project management or process32%
Providing value26%
Funding23%
Finding an executive champion16%
Subscriber engagement6%
Other7%
Fig 3.2Responses: 158 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply.

Top priorities and challenges

Across both top priorities and challenges, three areas stood out, which we will explore more deeply in the next sections.

1

Encouraging Adoption

2

Engaging
Contri­butors

3

Overcoming Debt

Fig 3.3


1 - 
Encouraging Adoption

Priority

#1

42% of in-house respondents selected increasing adoption as a priority

Challenge

#3

44% of in-house respondents selected increasing adoption as a challenge

Fig 3.4

Adoption continues to be a focus for many teams

Adoption difficulties have been high on respondents’ lists of concerns since our 2018 Design Systems Survey and remain there in 2021.

When used well it has had a large uplift in sales and performance. However, teams still need to be pushed to use it properly.

Too few people (developers and designers) use it on a daily basis.

"In your opinion, how successful is your organization’s design system?" based on answering "adoption" for "what are the top challenges your design system team is facing at this moment?"

Adoption is linked to success
Very Successful9%
Successful22%
Moderately Successful49%
Slightly Successful68%
Not Successful83%
Fig 3.5Responses: 157 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply for “What are the top challenges your design system team is facing at this moment?”

In-house respondents who perceived their design system as either “very successful” or “successful” were less likely to mention adoption as a challenge than those who reported moderate or little success. And, separately, 52% of agency respondents reported that lack of adoption is one of the most common reasons their clients’ design systems are unsuccessful.

"In your opinion, how successful is your organization’s design system?” based on “how much of your website(s) or application(s) is sourced from your design system?"

Higher use of the design system is linked to success
 Less than 25% is from the design system25% to 49% is from the design system50% to 75% is from the design systemMore than 75% is from the design systemI am not sure
Not Successful33%33%17%0%17%
Slightly Successful58%32%10%0%0%
Moderately Successful17%30%22%20%12%
Successful10%24%36%28%2%
Very Successful8%8%25%50%8%
Fig 3.6Responses: 159

The more a design system is used in digital products, the higher it’s perceived as successful by in-house respondents.

Reaching adoption goals is a common sign of maturity for design system teams.

Has your design system met its adoption goals?

Answer a few questions to find out where you fall within the Design System Maturity Model and get insights and ideas about how you can take your system to the next level.

Take the Assessment


2 - 
Engaging Contributors

Priority

#2

37% of in-house respondents selected contribution as a priority

Challenge

#2

45% of in-house respondents selected contribution as a challenge

Fig 3.7

“[Our design system] is quite limited in scope currently, we are concentrating on populating it more than anything else.”

"In your opinion, how successful is your organization’s design system?” based on “how frequently do design system users contribute to the design system?"

More frequent contribution by users is linked to success
 They don’t or rarely contribute to the design system (1-2)They sometimes contribute to the design system (3)They often or always contribute to the design system (4-5)
Not Successful83%0%17%
Slightly Successful68%18%14%
Moderately Successful48%34%18%
Successful49%28%23%
Very Successful50%20%30%
Fig 3.8Responses: 135 | Answers were on a scale of 1 to 5.

The more often users contribute to the design system, the more frequently in-house respondents perceive their design system as moderately successful or higher.

"How frequently do design system users contribute to the design system?"

But contribution is low
They don’t or rarely contribute to the design system17%
They rarely contribute to the design system37%
They sometimes contribute to the design system26%
They often or always contribute to the design system12%
They always contribute to the design system8%
Fig 3.9Responses: 136 | Answers were on a scale of 1 to 5.

54% of in-house respondents reported that their design system users rarely contribute to the system or don’t contribute at all.

"How defined is your process that enables design system users to contribute to the design system?” based on “how frequently do design system users contribute to the design system?"

More defined process is linked to increased contribution
 They don’t or rarely contribute to the design system (1-2)They sometimes contribute to the design system (3)They often or always contribute to the design system (4-5)
Not Defined to somewhat defined (1-2)74%8%18%
Moderately Defined (3)40%43%17%
Well and very well defined (4-5)44%31%26%
Fig 3.1Respondents: 136 | Answers were on a scale of 1 to 5.

Having a more defined process for contributing to the design system increases the frequency that users contribute to the system.

"In your opinion, how successful is your organization’s design system?” based on “how defined is your process that enables design system users to contribute to the design system?"

More defined process is linked to success
 Not defined to somewhat defined (1–2)Moderately defined (3)Well and very well defined (4–5)
Not Successful33%33%33%
Slightly Successful68%29%4%
Moderately Successful30%34%36%
Successful32%36%32%
Very Successful10%50%40%
Fig 3.11Respondents: 135 | Answers were on a scale of 1 to 5.

And having a more defined contribution model contributes to the design system’s overall perceived success by in-house respondents.

"How defined is your process that enables design system users to contribute to the design system?"

But most systems don’t have a well-defined process
Not define (1)17%
Somewhat defined (2)20%
Moderately defined (3)35%
Well defined (4)14%
Very well defined (5)15%
Fig 3.12Respondents: 136 | Answers were on a scale of 1 to 5.

Only 29% of respondents rated their contribution process as well defined or very well defined. And, separately, only 27% of agency respondents reported that they recommend a contribution model to their clients.



3 - 
Overcoming Debt

Priority

#4

35% of in-house respondents selected overcoming debt as a priority

Challenge

#1

47% of in-house respondents selected overcoming debt as a challenge

Fig 3.13

“Nothing can account for the impact to various development stacks in the product. A design system will always produce some technical debt.”

“All system choices, especially first-iteration ones made because of resource limitations on the design system team's side impose limitations on products. This limits the evolution of products unless they break free of the system. Future iterations of the system need to support both a future vision as well as a current state, causing a constant deprecated vs not-built-yet state. This interaction can cause deadlock between the system, the platform, and the products.”

"Do you feel the way the design system was originally built did or did not create debt for the technical or design departments?"

Many teams feel their design system is creating debt
It created debt53%
It did not create debt32%
I dont know15%
Fig 3.14Responses: 136

53% of in-house respondents reported that their design system creates debt. And, separately, agency respondents agreed, with 47% saying that they believe their clients’ design systems create debt.

What Causes Debt?

When asked about the causes for technical and design debt in an open-ended question, in-house respondents’ top reasons include poor implementation (19 of 42 responses) and updating pre-existing products (11 of 42 responses).

The documentation was incomplete, and thus the proper technical implementation was partial guesswork (guidance not in place)

In an effort to move fast, many projects result in ‘we can incorporate this into the system later’ or ‘we can update this after we ship.’

... we created the design system based on an existing product, there has been debt because it wasn't built from components to start with. However, all features within the product that have been updated over the years are now debt-free (both design and tech). So it's a tricky one to answer. We have a web product which was built from scratch off DS components and that has no debt. I think debt is created/related to when the DS was implemented along the lifecycle of the product/s it's supporting.

"In your opinion, how successful is your organization's design system" based on "do you feel the way the design system was originally built did or did not create debt for the technical or design departments?"

Debt didn’t impact perceived success
 It created debtIt did not created debtI don't know
Not Successful83%17%0%
Slightly Successful50%32%18%
Moderately Successful50%34%16%
Successful53%32%15%
Very Successful50%40%10%
Fig 3.15Responses: 135

Though many respondents thought their design system(s) created debt, this did not correlate to the perception of a less successful design system.

How is it that respondents could report debt being a major challenge, but it doesn’t impact perceived success?

One possible explanation could lie in some open-ended answers in which 9 of 42 in-house respondents mentioned that debt seemed unavoidable in an initiative of this size and scope.

Everything causes tech/design debt. It's unavoidable…Honestly, I feel this is just the curse of software development.

How would it not? Any legacy product would need a facelift. Any new product must adhere to guidelines. Yes, there are ways to streamline this, and in some cases the product development process speeds up... A design system will always produce some technical debt.

Metrics

46% of in-house respondents have dedicated design system teams — but even non-dedicated teams have to get approval to spend time on the system. While the promise of a design system may be enough to gain support on day one, as systems get older, it’s natural that teams need to prove their value. Enter metrics.

"In your opinion, how successful is your organization's design system" based on "does your organization track metrics for your design system?"

Tracking metrics is linked to success
 Yes, we track metricsNo, we do not track metricsI am not sure
Not successful0%100%0%
Slightly successful16%74%10%
Moderately successful23%67%10%
Successful48%42%10%
Very successful50%42%8%
Fig 4.1Responses: 159

In-house teams who track design system metrics perceive their systems as more successful.

“Does your organization track metrics for your design system?”

But many aren’t tracking metrics
Yes, we track metrics31%
No, we do not track metrics59%
I am not sure9%
Fig 4.2Responses: 160

59% of in-house respondents don’t track design system metrics. And, separately, 45% of agency respondents reported that they don’t actively recommend that their clients track design system metrics.


Design system teams track similar metrics

Which metrics are you tracking?”

88%

Usage

84%

Adopt­ion

76%

Access­ibillity

64%

Effic­iency

64%

Engage­ment

62%

Usabil­ity

56%

Consi­stency

Fig 4.3Responses: 50

Among in-house teams who are tracking metrics, the top areas tracked include usage, adoption, and accessibility.

“How are you reporting your design system metrics?”

Teams share metrics in different ways
Regularly held or special meetings39%
Announcements in communication channels32%
Newsletters21%
We include metrics in the design system16%
We do not share our design system metrics29%
I am not sure11%
Other13%
Fig 4.4Responses: 38 | Respondents were asked to select all that apply.

Evolution

Since the 2020 Design Systems Survey, we’ve heard from peers and clients that many teams have started over with a new design system. As a result, this year we added questions to better understand how common this may be and to understand why teams are choosing to build additional or new design systems.

“Has your organization thought about or already started over on a new design system?”

Some teams are thinking about creating new systems
No61%
Yes, we have considered creating a new design system9%
Yes, we have taken steps towards creating a new design system26%
I am not sure4%
Fig 5.1Responses: 136

35% of in-house teams have thought about or taken steps to create a new design system. And, separately, 58% of agency respondents reported that they had witnessed a client consider or take steps toward a new design system.

Why are some teams considering/starting over?

Among in-house teams who have begun or considered beginning a new system, the top reason for doing so (12 of 25 responses) was difficulties with adoption—with a strong mention of cross-team silos.

Different areas in our org are going in their own directions and believe they need their own design systems. One area in particular is moving to a new backend and was given the mandate from business to create an entirely new visual language. They specifically do not wish to use the existing DS team or system to house and integrate their libraries into (politics, really).

Several [lines of business] have spun up new design systems.

Other common responses included overcoming technical debt or technical evolution (8 of 25), evolving designs or brands (4 of 25), and issues caused by changing contribution models or system inflexibility (4 of 25) as influencing factors.

To increase adoption as we move towards a common tech stack.

We've created a lot of technical debt on our way and learned from our mistakes. We're building a new and well documented design system from our existing components... and moving from a very restricted design system to a more flexible system.

“Does your organization have more than one design system currently being used?”

Many teams already have more than one system
No, we only have one design system57%
Yes, we have more than one design system39%
I am not sure4%
Fig 5.2Responses: 136

Why do some organizations have multiple systems?

Of in-house respondents who reported their organization having more than one design system, the top theme mentioned was that they exist to accommodate different audiences (20 of 29 responses) with many referencing cross-team silos as a challenge.

There are different divisions of the company that serve different customers and personas. These teams spun up their own design system.

Our company is large and has multiple group companies that operate almost like their own entities. It's typical for group companies to have one or more systems associated with notably different products.

Some brands started mini or micro DSs to bypass central DS police and also have more control over smaller changes or style changes.

Design systems are intended to cross complex boundaries, but realizing the full value of your investment is tricky work.

What do you need to support your design system?

Take the Maturity Model Assessment to get feedback on where you are now, and suggestions that will help you move forward to benefit your whole organization.

Take the Assessment

Conclusion

Today’s design system teams are focused on encouraging adoption, engaging contributors, and overcoming debt. And the teams that focus on the majority of these items, along with metrics, are reaping the rewards of more successful systems. As we noted in the 2018 Design Systems Survey, “a design system is an investment in your future, and one that takes conversation, collaboration, and expectation-setting to succeed.” It’s clear that a design system alone does not ensure success.

How do you build a design system that lives up to the dream?

If you're having trouble gaining cross-functional buy-in and support, your design system’s success might be in jeopardy.

We’ll be exploring this design system issue and more as we continue interviewing design system team members throughout the year and digging even deeper into this survey’s data.

Are you interested in the full data set of this survey? Download the file on Dropbox.

Would you join us and help us uncover more answers?

Sparkbox conducts this survey annually to give the design system community an opportunity to learn from one another.

Can we continue to include you?