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Bringing design systems to a global energy firm

Find out how Nick Cochran of ExxonMobil uses design systems to spearhead an appreciation for design at one of the largest global oil and gas companies.

Design Diaries is our ongoing series featuring conversations with design leaders from some of the world’s most innovative companies.
Nick Cochran

Nick Cochran

Nick Cochran, a 14-year ExxonMobil veteran, has spent the last five years growing the company’s design discipline. Cochran led the delivery of a design system called Unity that supports over 100 internal digital apps and websites at ExxonMobil. Here, he discusses the value of implementing a design system in a global enterprise.

Design Diaries is our ongoing series featuring thought-provoking and candid conversations with design leaders and luminaries about the future of design.

What were the pain points that led to creating your design system?

Our design discipline started in 2014, two years before we launched our design system. We had trained about 2,500 people worldwide in a class called User Centered Design 101 to appreciate why it’s important to adopt this mindset at ExxonMobil. We created a lot of interest, but then couldn’t keep up with the demand. People were eager to overhaul their apps using a more user-centered approach, but we just didn’t have enough designers to contribute to all of these initiatives.   

We also had different design teams and projects that were making nice things, but they weren’t necessarily consistent from one to the next. Even if they were well-designed experiences in isolation, people using more than one of them would have to learn new navigation paradigms and interaction models to do similar things across these applications.

How did you get leadership buy-in for your design system?

We did our homework. We went out to learn, “What are these things called design systems, and what kind of benefits do they bring?” We talked to other companies and agencies that had implemented design systems. We gathered facts and figures that helped us make a case.

We made the pitch that design systems give companies a way to scale their ability to deliver good experiences, in a cohesive way. That resonated. Our leaders were interested in delivering good experiences and, frankly, had been a bit fed up with some really terrible enterprise software experiences in prior years.

A design system usually draws on the visual characteristics of a company’s culture to differentiate brand elements. Where did you draw inspiration for the vision of your design system?

We weren’t trying to rebrand the company or our applications. We were extending our existing brand guidelines for interactive use cases and layering on the important things that might be missing — like guidelines for accessibility and readability — different experiences we needed to account for when designing for the web.

We had a lot of data-dense applications where we needed a lot of information displayed on the screen, so we knew one principle for the system had to be adaptable density. That was just one example of how we examined our potential use cases to influence the visual direction of the design system.

Who collaborated with you to create the design system?

We had a strong dev collaborator who is still our development lead for the design system. We had several other interested parties and stakeholders from our designer and developer communities. We also hired an agency with lots of design system experience who brought a team with design, development, and product expertise.

How critical were communication and collaboration to this process?

Our organization is big — 75,000 employees worldwide. That’s a lot of people, teams, and activity. Community and collaboration are a constant challenge.

My primary role during this implementation was communication and collaboration, helping to address concerns, making sure the organization felt heard and that people felt they had an avenue to collaborate. A key part of my responsibility was educating the organization. It may be obvious to us in design organizations what a design system is and why it’s valuable. Most people in your organization have no clue about that, so you need to educate those audiences.
I was the interface to the organization — the champion to share, educate, and communicate. That is an important role in any successful design system implementation.

How is your design system driving change at ExxonMobil?

It helps our design and development teams create internal apps faster and enables more teams throughout the company to make better design choices when they’re developing different customer experiences.

Having a point of reference or a place to gather to discuss guidelines or components we all share brings people together to have conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise. Employees are adopting better UX practices in teams where they previously hadn’t been thinking about those things because they didn’t have designers available to them. We’ve also reduced development and design costs because we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

A design system really benefits our teams because it brings people together for collaborations that didn’t seem to happen before. That brings quicker iterations to products and creates a more cohesive user experience.

How can other organizations use design systems to build a more collaborative culture?

We had a serious discussion about whether to mandate the use of the design system. We felt strongly that we shouldn’t. It would discourage collaboration if it felt like something forced on people. If they perceived they had no input on the system, why should they be expected to use it? That kind of perception will stop collaboration in its tracks.

That helped us build a much stronger community and partnership with the people using this design system internally. My advice to other organizations is to strongly consider what mandating your design system might do to collaboration  — and if it’s worth it.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in the last year from a UX perspective?

I have these surreal experiences where I will be walking in the office and see people working on an app that I was not aware of that clearly was created with the design system. That’s validation that we’ve put something out there that people really find valuable and useful. That’s always what we shoot for in our work, so achieving it is something our team can be very proud of.

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