Empathy is your seceret ingredient in designing systems

As systems are made by, and for, people - they should be designed for them. This is how you can design your system *for* people


June 4, 2020

From typography, to grids, to aesthetic principles, much of modern graphic design is based on systems. While different in style and purpose, these systems developed through a similar process: they came about from unfinished and scattered documents that were collected into libraries filled with ideas, tests and conclusions. In many cases, these processes resulted in guidebooks that would be used by designers, engineers or anyone looking for new applications of these principles. The current transition of these modern systems into digital applications draws much discussion as to how we should design these systems and what we can learn from the past.

In today’s tech environment, System Design is a well-established growth accelerator. A working system can streamline complex processes, providing clear benefits. Digital System Design differs from modern systems in many ways, particularly through its adaptability, ability to grow and change, and its surprising connection to empathy.

What success means in system design

Any system reflects its users, and Digital System Design also reflects the current tech environment, which draws upon an unprecedented variety of backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and languages. This multicultural fact is the first inherent difference between any modernist design systems and digital systems, which creates a unique challenge for its designers. In the past, all those who needed to understand and apply the system’s principals came from the same culture, were educated in the same institutions and spoke the same language. Today, how well a system is designed is only measured by its implementation, and surprisingly enough that only works when the designer takes a different perspective from their own into consideration. In other words, Digital System Design compels empathy.

Across practices, designers are taught to develop empathy, which later proves itself as one of the most significant and efficient skills for design. While it may seem less relevant in the case of System Design, empathy enables designers to connect the dots between rules and elements. Any system is founded on communication as a core value and is dependent upon how well it enables its users to understand a set of rules and apply them. One person who demonstrates the importance of communication, especially as communities are becoming more inclusive, is Sharon Steed, a corporate empathy and communications consultant, She uses her speech impediment to teach both “what empathy is and how to be empathetic” in the context of System Design.

When building a Design System, empathy and communication can manifest in three aspects: technical and functional, organizational collaboration and the response given to users.

Technical and functional

A system that is designed to communicate itself is one that is balanced between the rule-setter and its user. Much like any good form of communication, where there is a similar investment by the speaker and the listener, this balance is key for building and maintaining a design system.

The concept of Atomic Design, conceived by web designer, speaker, consultant, and writer Brad Frost, is a methodology composed of five distinct stages (Atoms, Molecules, Organisms, Templates, and Pages) working together to create interface design systems more deliberately and hierarchically. The way things are named impacts how they're perceived and utilized, so ideally everyone who uses the system should understand and work by one methodology and therefore speak the same language. A system’s ultimate goal is to create better and seamless collaboration between design, code, and implementation rules. All three form the final product that users interact with. As described by Marcin Treder, CEO at UXpin, “The closer we connect all three in our product development process, the more powerful our language becomes.”

Support in your organization

“We’re talking structure, not restrictions” argues Drew Bridewell, lead product designer at Facebook, highlighting one of the most important aspects in implementing design systems within a company: instilling a sense of collaboration.

One design system team can’t and shouldn’t do it all, but it’s the team’s responsibility to survey the awareness of designers, engineers and product managers toward the system. It is the team’s responsibility to draw conclusions from feedback and integrate change requests into the workflow.

If a design system does not encourage others to contribute to it and expand it, it will probably not reach its full potential. Recruiting advocates of the design system and its purpose throughout the organization will help build a strong network based on communication and efficient workflows.

Working accessibility and diversity

Design systems can be used in new, unexpected areas, like illustration, but this compels the designer to rethink how the system might challenge or preserve biases. Jennifer Hom, Experience Design Manager of Product Illustration at Airbnb, was tasked to redesign their illustration system, starting from the ground up, to be used later as a key component in their identity system.

Language and culture aren’t static, and the digital world means that changes are happening faster than ever before. With that in mind, Hom created an illustration style centered on honesty, diversity, and ownability. Thinking of a design system as a language is helpful in both a technical sense and inside the organization as well, as its ultimate purpose is to improve the conversation with users. Hom employed the power of illustration as a strong communication tool to say something meaningful about the brand, creating a fascinating example of using a design system.

Design a system like an ecosystem

Across companies, leaders in System Design are looking to facilitate and streamline communication and information knowledge. Empathy is key for any design system to flourish. Thinking of it as being more like an ecosystem, which is bigger and more complex than what one individual can define can help it develop accordingly.

While it can feel impossible to imagine yourself in a different position, the best solution is quite simple: talking to others. Design shouldn’t be based on the assumption that we are all fundamentally the same, but on the realization that addressing differences is how we can find a fresh perspective, creating a design process based on real needs.

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