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Aligning product teams with design systems through community, not control

by Patrick Faller

Community, not control: Aligning product teams with new design systems
Hoyle Wang
Patrick Faller is an award-winning writer, editor, and content strategist, creating and coordinating content and community for Adobe and other clients in the technology and video game industries. He is passionate about design and design journalism.

How Adobe’s senior design leadership took a community approach to get everyone on board.

 

Making any big change at a large organization takes time; as we explored in the last post, the process of successfully getting buy-in for a design system from multiple teams involves many meetings and an unquenchable desire to collaborate and communicate. But what happens after you get the green light from stakeholders? How do you align product teams to make sure everyone is on the same page, operating in the same way? For the Spectrum team, made up of designers tasked specifically with making sure consistent patterns are used for common experiences across Adobe’s product ecosystem, the mantra is always ‘community, not control.’

“It is always a challenge working across traditional product spaces, because every product team has their unique way of working, which makes collaboration difficult,” said Brett Marshall, Adobe’s senior experience design manager. “We never want to be the ‘consistency overlord’ that comes to a product team and dictates how things should be done.”

To align those teams with the greater vision of Spectrum, a design system that creates a common experience language for all of Adobe’s apps and services, Brett and his team regularly meet with other designers across the organization. His designers work collaboratively with the product designers, solving cross-product design problems that scale to the different product contexts. The product designers are then able to leverage the consistent results when delivering designs back to their development teams.

Arrive at solutions together

“We arrive at these solutions together. Then, when the product designer delivers their specifications to the product team, everyone knows the solution has been aligned to our common design language. That way, we’re not disrupting respective product team processes,” said Brett.

Catering to individual product needs, while pulling from existing efforts to maximize efficiency

The Spectrum team doesn’t expect individual designers to stay on top of consistency efforts by themselves. They position themselves as a resource for individual product designers; for example, if a designer is looking to build an onboarding experience for their product, the Spectrum team will audit existing onboarding patterns, identify best practices, and work with the product designers to align on a direction. For Brett and team, refining and evolving these common experiences is an ongoing process. The Spectrum design system does not provide ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions.

“We create standard experiences everyone can pull from, which is especially useful for new products in development, so they have a starting point,” he said. “But we always present existing design patterns and best practices with the question, does this work for your product? Why or why not?”

Spectrum primes product design teams with elements and best practices for designing for a growing number of devices and screen sizes.

Spectrum primes product design teams with elements and best practices for designing for an growing number of devices and screen sizes.

If individual product teams need to customize the solution to better fit their users’ needs, the designers collaborate to expand the pattern to include use-case appropriate variations. So, while products designed with Spectrum principles at heart may highly resemble each other, both visually and in the experiences they provide, they may not be identical in these ways.

“To say ‘you must do XYZ’ never works,” said Eric Snowden, senior director of design for Creative Cloud and Document Cloud. “We’re pushing for consistency and continuity, but we need to be flexible, knowing where teams are in the process, knowing their priorities and working with them to fit the mandate without sacrificing designers’ ability to push and innovate.” Similarly, designers who find improved ways of creating elements and experiences see their ideas fed back into the consistency effort. It is never static and is always evolving through collaborative efforts.

Providing a framework to allow designers to focus on what’s unique about their product

On the whole, aligning product teams with the Spectrum initiative has been a success. The team credits this success to its approach of community, not control — it’s never about taking away design teams’ freedom to innovate, but rather providing them with guidance and references for standardized elements, so they can focus on the elements that make their product special. It is, and has always been, a conversation among equals — Spectrum designers, and their product design counterparts.

“This is a system that helps designers and product teams create Adobe experiences — it’s a set of resources that designers can leverage to help them build out these experiences quickly and sensibly. This way, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they’re designing a new product effort,” said Brett.

“With an established design framework in place, product designers and teams can focus on what’s unique about their product. What’s standard to the Adobe experience, and what’s special about this product? It lets them deep dive into the special areas.”

The toolbars above can be found in similar, but often not identical, form across the Adobe app ecosystem. Individual product teams are empowered to adjust Spectrum solutions to meet their app or service’s needs.

Individual product teams are empowered to adjust Spectrum solutions to meet their app or service’s needs.

You’re already seeing examples of this process come to life in apps like Adobe XD, Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Dimension, and Adobe Premiere Rush. These apps are more intuitive, less cluttered, and allow you to jump in and have success much quicker. Each app is familiar to the users of the others — there are a lot of shared elements — but each solves a very different problem for their users, and that means offering unique features and experience flows to help them achieve their desired result.

Invite In (collaboration)

Options are accessed and managed separately from the Share Out features.

The invite panel managers shared document access through a shared access point and experience.

Adobe best practices for collaboration features, as defined by the Spectrum design system.

Invite In (collaboration)

“It’s never about consistency for the sake of consistency. Working this new way provides real benefits to Adobe and our customers. We know that if the user uses more than one of our applications, they’re more likely to stick around,”  said Snowden.

“Helping them be able to get started sooner and work in multiple products is a big goal, and it’s not hard to get product teams on board with that.”

Hoyle Wang
Patrick Faller is an award-winning writer, editor, and content strategist, creating and coordinating content and community for Adobe and other clients in the technology and video game industries. He is passionate about design and design journalism.

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