Nate Whitson is a designer and storyteller focused on building impactful, meaningful, and effective experiences that build value at scale. He believes in the power of narrative to change and persuade, the power of design to create good in the world, and the power of technology to create opportunity.

He is currently at LinkedIn as a Senior Principal Designer on their Design Systems team, the group designing the UI framework all their product teams use to craft awesome, consistent, and brilliant user experiences that deliver value to members across all LinkedIn touchpoints.

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Episode Transcript

J Cornelius: You know how LinkedIn has been better looking and easier to use? Today we talk to Nate Whitson, LinkedIn's principal designer, about how they've used design systems to make that possible and save the company millions of dollars along the way.

Intro: This is Design Driven, the podcast about using design thinking to build great products and lasting companies. Whether you're running a startup or trying something new inside a Fortune 1000, the tools, methods, and insights we talk about will help you create things people love. And now, your host, J Cornelius.

J: Hey, everybody. We're excited to have Nate Whitson with us today. He is the Senior Principal Designer on the Design Systems team at LinkedIn. Nate, how are you today?

Nate Whitson: Doing well. I'm actually working from home today so pretty comfy in a home office. Getting a lot done.

J: Nice. And unlimited supply of coffee, I take it?

Nate: Yes. Unlimited supply of coffee. I have my shoes off. I have my comfy socks on, that's always a good thing.

J: Yeah. Full comfort mode.

Nate: Yes.

J: I would struggle to think that anyone out there doesn't know what LinkedIn is or does, so I think we can all assume that we get that part.

Nate: Sure.

J: But tell us a little bit about what you're doing at LinkedIn and what you're working on that excites you.

Nate: Yeah, totally. Well, I'll actually lean in on the part of LinkedIn that a lot of people don't know about. I think a lot of people are probably familiar with our product, that social network for professionals and what's out there that they might use all the time, their LinkedIn profile. There's actually a large part of LinkedIn and a part of the teams that we have here that work on products that are for kind of special cases for different industries. Recruiter was our first product that was outside of our usual consumer stuff. We also have products for sales people, like sales navigator. We also have LinkedIn Learning, which kind of got launched with the acquisition of Lynda that happened recently at LinkedIn.

There's actually a lot happening that I think the public doesn't see unless you happen to be in one of those industries. It's something I like to call out about LinkedIn so just that people have an idea if I talk about how big the team is and kind of the number of engineers we work with and things like that. They know that we actually have a lot of other kind of specializes SAAS stuff out there for these different industries and more added all the time. With the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft, which happened last year, even more’s going on. I think that's an important thing to call out, just so people have it in their minds that LinkedIn is kind of more than what they might see on the surface.

What I work on in particular is, like I said, the Design Systems team. We have a product, that's the way we think of it, as a product, called Art Deco. That's our design system that supports all of those products that I just mentioned and many more, things that are happening locally in India, things that are happening in China, things that are just are internal apps that engineers or data scientists use to track metrics. It's actually a very wide ranging system. I've been working on that for over two years now. It had its genesis about two years ago. We're finally seeing it kind of roll its way into our consumer products just in this past six months-

J: Right.

Nate: Because that's kind of a long time to be on a product like this but it's exciting to fruition.

J: Yeah, that's a long roll out.

Nate: Yeah.

J: Would the recent updates to what most people recognize as LinkedIn, were those a result of that work?

Nate: Yes. Yeah. That's a reflection of that work. Obviously, a ton of work by our product design teams who are really working on that feature set and the engineers building it. But that's kind of the culmination of what we've been working on. We've actually had a bunch of other products who have adopted this design system, Art Deco, earlier as kind of a test bed for what we were doing later on. This has actually been put into other products you may not be familiar with even if it's a year and a half or two years ago.

J: Right. What's that rollout look like? How do you manage what products or what pieces of products get the updates? And how do you decide what the priority is?

Nate: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it's a great question. I think I don't know if we had it fully mapped out and thinking about it as strategically as we could have, but it ended up rolling out in some of our less known or some of our venture bet products, smaller applications that a narrower audience might use that might not have the big user base of LinkedIn.com.

J: Right.

Nate: That started in our Pulse product. Pulse was an acquisition that kind of went through a shift and we applied this design system to Pulse very early in its lifespan. That gave us an opportunity to learn about what was working and what wasn't, both for the users as well as our own design and engineering teams. We got to use it on some internal products. We got to use it on a platform that powered a lot of our micro sites. That was a bit of a test bed for what we needed to do by the time we were going to roll it out much more broadly-

J: Right.

Nate: It morphed quite a bit over that time but-

J: Would you say that testing with those other products and those kind of limited audience was a way to prototype the way that these particular things worked and make sure that you had them right before you brought it into the widest audience, which is kind of the tool that most people think about when they think of LinkedIn?

Nate: Yeah, for sure. That was a good test bed. We learned a lot about not only for the design system itself, just the nuts and bolts and the pieces that went into it, but also our engineers learned a lot, the people that we work with to actually deliver this into our code base.

J: Yeah.

Nate: They learned a lot. Learned what not to do and what to do. By the time we were ready to roll this to the big audience, we knew a lot of the things that we wanted to avoid-

J: Yeah.

Nate: And the things we needed to do to make it good for site speed, for example, or easy to work with for our engineers, as well.

J: Yeah, that makes sense. How much do you think, if you had to estimate, how much changed from the time that you originally started working on the system? How much changed as a result of testing with those smaller groups that ended up being a big gain for when you actually rolled it out to the masses?

Nate: Yeah, so I mean, there were some really... I could go into details on some of the things that ended up mattering a lot, but there were some real foundational kind of fundamental changes that... We learned a lot about how to design a type system, for example, that we ended up completely re-working because we found out that the way we had rolled it out to these groups really wasn't going to work if we needed to roll it to all of our products. That was a key learning that it might work for this one group or a small group. We knew that it wasn't going to work if we needed to apply this everywhere because of the different use cases we were going to go from a product that was super data dense to one that was more open and kind of consumer oriented product that wasn't about digging into a bunch of tables and things like that.

J: Right.

Nate: So, we knew that we were going to have to simplify that and we knew that we were, a specific example, that we couldn't use semantic type names. We knew that we couldn't call everything a headline because that would turn out that if everyone was applying this but they needed a different size, it wouldn't really work the way that we had intended it. So, they were going to be calling something a headline just because they wanted that size, for example-

J: Right.

Nate: But that wasn't going to be semantic anymore, that wasn't going to apply in the code well. We had to completely re-work that type system. We ditched a font along the way, decided to use a different one. All those things were learned in that kind of first six months to a year before we really got going on what I would consider kind of the mature stage of the design system that we have now.

J: Yeah, that's interesting. What kind of things were you listening for? Were you getting feedback or looking at analytics, talking to users? How did you get that insight to make those decisions?

Nate: Yeah, so I mean, we got a lot of feedback through the design testing process, through research. So, ahead of when the product launched. We got to hear how kind of sentiment and we call our users at LinkedIn, we call them members so I'll say members when thinking about users. We got a lot of that sentiment back during the research phase ahead of when the product actually launched.

And then we also got a lot of sentiment and direct feedback once the product launched and got a bigger audience. That was useful. Were we on the right track, just in the right zone for something that should feel like a modern app or modern web app? What are the expectations that users have? LinkedIn needed to take a pretty big jump, I think. I don't think anyone would argue that our desktop site was a shining pinnacle of modern web design. It was really due for an update. But we did hear a lot directly from members through that research process.

Equally important is we heard a lot from our internal teams. The way that we think about our design system is as a product that has a goal in mind for our members. We want to support great user experience, but our users internally are designers and engineers. So, when we were thinking about this as a product, that's our audience. We learned a lot about how to deliver this system to make it extremely user friendly for the designers and engineers who actually needed to build with it and-

J: Right. So, you're making a tool for those people to make a great experience for the end user who is your LinkedIn member?

Nate: Exactly. I think that was probably the biggest insight that we had along the way. There's been a lot of good writing out there now of, well, of course that seems obvious that that would be the case-

J: Yeah, in hindsight, right?

Nate: And you can treat it like a product. Yeah, but as we were kind of going through this, the idea of doing design systems at this scale, Material Design came out right about the time when we had gotten going on our project. There wasn't a lot of kind of authorship or thinking out there about how do you do this at a very large scale? So, yeah. In hindsight it seems really obvious, but we really needed to focus on our users of the product in order to get that end goal, which was this great user experience for our members.

J: Right.

Nate: Yep. So we kind of made sure that we were focused on that and we're really driven by that now when we're thinking about our design system as the product for our internal teams.

J: Yeah, which seems kind of counter intuitive to what we might consider the traditional thinking about how you go about creating something for the actual end user, the person who's paying you money to use the service.

Nate: Right.

J: You don't think about designing for your inside first and then by proxy, I guess that it creates a better experience for them. It's an interesting insight. How have you seen the teams who are actually building the products that people use? How have you seen their efficiency or their accuracy or? Are you tracking any metrics around how they're using the system and what's that led to in terms of maybe speed to get products into market or testing new ideas or anything along those lines?

Nate: Yeah. We actually do. We did do some breakdowns on the cost, especially for engineers, which are very expensive, engineering time with those teams to build something. We actually looked at kind of an average dollar amount per hour spent on building out some of what the equivalent of a very core library, foundational style, some very simple components. And if we replicated that across all of the engineering teams that we have at LinkedIn, that's a colossal amount of money each year. So, we kind of were able to quantify it within a pretty good ballpark of what it would cost if we didn't have any system in place. We knew that that was going to be a cost savings no matter what, as soon as you start to introduce that re-usable code library, that was going to be not only a big cost savings to the business, but it also directly impacted or should directly impact engineering happiness.

J: Right.

Nate: So retention for the engineering team and-

J: Yeah, that's a good point.

Nate: How satisfying is it to build your product? How quickly can you get something to ship it and to test it? Are you proud of the way it looks and the way it feels when it actually hits the front end?

J: Yep.

Nate: So, all those things. We get feedback from our internal teams along the way and make improvements to how we're doing all kind of the engineering pipeline. It's the same thing for design, kind of in the weeds a little bit but we adopted an InVision product called Craft that delivers this library right into their main tool, which is Sketch, and now it's a drag and drop process to pull in all the stuff that we use in our library. Feedback on that was tremendous. We know that it cut out a lot of repetitive time that is not great design thinking, design-doing time. It's kind of those tasks which are these copy pastes that you add up. Minutes become hours became weeks-

J: Yeah.

Nate: Over the course of a year. Yeah, we know that it's actually had a big impact that has saved the company time and money.

J: Yeah, and not just quantitative stuff but qualitative stuff.

Nate: For sure.

J: People enjoy doing the work more.

Nate: Absolutely, and we've heard that over and over again. We literally have people pinging us on Slack or writing us emails and just saying, "Thank you. This has made my life so much better." Just focusing on that delivery, the way that we're actually giving it to them. The other insight is that, if I can step back a bit to focusing on the user of the product to achieve your end goal, to make it really dead simple, to do the right thing, which is using this design system because it made their lives better, right? That just is Product Design 101, but if you think about it that way, then you drive up the adoption rate, you get more of the stuff actually being used in your product, more teams want to use it, and then you get that great result of consistency and quality in your product for your members, for your users. Right?

J: Right. And then they see that and the consistent experience across all the different things that they touch-

Nate: Yeah.

J: Which gives a higher feeling of quality. So all over it just kind of raises the, I guess, the feeling of desire and desirability to use the app.

Nate: For sure. Yep.

J: I like what you said about design thinking versus design doing, because those are definitely different parts and they go hand in hand. It seems that what I'm hearing you say is that by using the design systems, the style guides, the tools that you've built, you've enabled the teams to actually do more of what they were hired to do, which is thinking about solving the actual problem for your members and doing more design doing, which is actually trying to work on solving that problem instead of getting set up and getting prepared to solve the problem.

Nate: Yeah. Absolutely. I did a little just study of myself and the team around me in how much time, literally, was spent in kind of hunting for the thing that you wanted to pull into your project, asking other teams, "Hey, do you have something that solved this problem before? Copying and pasting stuff." All those little things that you end up doing that are kind of not the real function of your job and-

J: Right.

Nate: What you were hired to do, to be this great design thinker who's really user centered and focused on that. There's a lot of stuff that builds up that is just kind of usability problems that our team can help to solve for our designers.

J: Right.

Nate: Anyway, the more-

J: You end up with a lot of technical debt really because-

Nate: Yeah.

J: If you're copying and pasting things multiple ... Anyone who's played the telephone game knows that if you copy and paste things repeatedly, eventually that consistency's going to break down.

Nate: Totally. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

J: So, if you've got a single source of truth for everything, that makes it a lot easier for everybody in the chain.

Nate: Yeah. You have your button style final, final, final, final-

J: Yeah, right.

Nate: All that stuff. Right?

J: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You mentioned that it's a pretty large increase in not just consistency and quality but also of the positive feelings about the design systems. Do you have any idea what the financial impact was in dollars or even percentages? And how the stakeholders up the chain in the C level or product managers up the chain are viewing design systems now?

Nate: Yeah. I mean, so very fortunate in that we had buy-in. This project was something that all of our leaders were already on board with. There was no selling. In fact, I was brought in to work on this project, had the good fortune being asked to do it, by our Design VP at LinkedIn.

There was already buy-in coming from executives in our engineers group and buy-in to the very top from our CEO, Jeff Weiner, who was also the head of product during the time, basically for the last two years. This already, I think a lot of these projects often kind of need to get championed so you need to be able to talk clearly about what kind of value it's delivering to the business not just your users but also to the business. I mean, to your users there is delivering value to the business, right? Because they could be more engaged, they feel that consistency and that quality in your products so your chances of success there are higher.

But to really quantify it in terms of money saved for the business, so you can focus on things that really matter or can cut down on the time it takes to iterate and ship something. We didn't have to see that. That was already there. We didn't have to spend a lot of time gathering that data. That was something that was already bought into. But we do know that it was literally millions of dollars saved when we broke down that time for engineers-

J: Wow.

Nate: Just on that it was millions of dollars saved. I mean, we're a fairly large company so that added up pretty quickly for the number of engineers working on any front end for any of our applications.

J: Sure.

Nate: But I would expect that just if you have even on a small team, those little things add up. So I can't advocate enough for the design system as a saver for the business. Even if you're replicating it say twice and you have a very small team and just a few engineers working on it, they're going to want to have reusable code anyway and this is just about doing it at scale-

J: Right.

Nate: It's just the kind of the smart way of doing business at scale for any kind of design pretty much moving forward, I think. I can talk about some of the drawbacks but I think there's very little to kind of argue against adopting a flexible design system for any type of scale. I think it's a really, really smart move.

J: Yeah. And especially when you're talking about saving huge amounts of money as it pertains to ... I mean, that's a cost that you're essentially eliminating, right?

Nate: Yeah.

J: You're making the team more efficient, the team enjoys their job more so you cut down on turnover and all of those other costs. It's really helped not just make the website look better and easier to use, but it's also helped the company be more efficient.

Nate: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, that's well put.

J: Yeah. Going back to the way that it actually looks and the way that the members interact with it, what kind of analytics are you looking at? Or how do you know that once it gets out into the wide that you've actually improved the experience for the person who's paying LinkedIn as a, what do you call it, a prime member or a-

Nate: Oh, yeah. Premier.

J: Premier. Premium member.

Nate: Yeah. We pick up signals in a lot of different ways, right? There's just at a analytics level. If we're ever shipping anything that has been well-established in our product, we need to make sure that the metrics that we care about to measure that we're delivering value are on the uptick or at the very least are neutral for any kind of change like this. There's a very kind of hard numbers piece to it to see if there's anything about the design system itself that's kind of getting in the way of our members finding value or completing tasks on the site, right?

J: Right.

Nate: We would never want to get in the way of that. We want, at the very least, for it to be neutral or to see an uptick just with a change say a visual change or a change in the usability of a component that we shipped and people are using. We can test it that way. A big one is kind of in the brand sentiment. Another big piece of the design system is that it's your expression of the brand in your product. That's what people will think about when they think about your product and kind of the associations they have. Does it feel modern? Does it feel like as airy as you intended? Does it feel serious? Does it feel professional? Those are kind of the things that we think about and-

J: Right. Does it convey the brand attributes? Right?

Nate: Totally. And we can hear that through research. We have heard that through research. The kind of response that we've gotten to Art Deco has been the kind of thing that we were aiming at, which is to feel like this is a modern professional look and feel, one that feels like what people associate with LinkedIn, and feels like the kind of conversations that you have, the things that you post in your feed. All of the UI feels appropriate to that kind of professional-social network.

J: Right.

Nate: We do hear that back. Those are kind of the two things we pay attention to the most. You can look at other stuff like app downloads for mobile apps, things like what and what people are writing in comments, although that can be interesting to read what people write about your product in the app store. Not always the best place to find great feedback, but valuable.

J: It's a data point but not-

Nate: It's a data point.

J: Yeah, yeah. Thinking through kind of the daily usage of LinkedIn, I mean, obviously, I've used the product. I use it pretty heavily. I've got my perspective on what some of the tasks or some of the features or functionality that are high priority for me. How do you go about determining priority of things and how to map those user journeys or make those experiences out in a way that's actually going to increase usage or increase loyalty or desirability or any of those factors?

Nate: That's a big question.

J: Yeah, it is.

Nate: I think the thing that we probably hear most often is that, "I'm on LinkedIn. I have a profile. I've made some connections. But I don't know entirely what LinkedIn is for." Because I think LinkedIn is a tool, it's kind of a business tool for individual professionals that is very adaptable to their needs. Those needs change over time as you kind of move through different phases of your professional life.

The tasks, I think there's a lot of very common tasks. Messaging would be a very common task that it gets shared. I just want to send a message to somebody in my network. That can be shared by a lot of people in different phases of their professional career, different phases of their relationship with LinkedIn. It's a really kind of potentially very complicated interaction between a lot of different tasks and different users. Right? So really in different places. A senior leader is at a really different place than somebody early in their career.

That's one of the giant differences between LinkedIn and Facebook, although we get that comparison a lot. As this is representing your professional self, it's a place that you can use to advance your career, whether that's a job or whether you're writing about an area of expertise, or whether you just want to stay up to date on what's happening in your industry. Those are use cases that I think are fairly unique to LinkedIn and trying to figure out the interplay between all those is really complicated.

J: Yeah. That-

Nate: I can't speak directly to a task and kind of making sure that that task is clear. What I can tell you is we work really hard to try to simplify, explain, and make clear how to use LinkedIn. That's a constant challenge for somebody who's brand new to it or somebody who's a power user. How can you get more out of it? That is always difficult and something that we've been battling since LinkedIn was built. Right? Since it was founded.

J: Right. Yeah.

Nate: Because it can do so many things for you depending on where you are in your career.

J: Well, and as people's acceptance of using the web and tools like LinkedIn has grown or has morphed into what we have now today. The ways that they look to use a tool like LinkedIn have probably changed dramatically.

Nate: Yep. Yeah, for sure. And there's things that we've done to change, to help to not only modernize LinkedIn, moving to messaging versus kind of an in mail or email type messaging system, moving to one that's more instant messaging model. That also changed the expectations that users have now, or members have of LinkedIn and how they should communicate on it.

J: Right.

Nate: Even just that is really interesting use case of people not necessarily feeling comfortable with that in some cases. It felt a little too casual. You may never get that response say out of Facebook messaging that it feels too causal but we certainly heard about that. People want to put their best foot forward if they're reaching out to somebody they don't know, which is very common on LinkedIn. There's a lot of interesting cases like that where sorting through that task is really different than sorting through a very casual kind of messaging experience.

J: Yeah. Exactly. It's interesting that you pointed out the continuum between someone who's early in their career or someone who might already be an established leader in their field and how the types of things that they want to do on the site are different. Are there any other kind of continuum's or kind of spectrums that you look at in terms of how users are using the site that helps you understand what you should be designing and how you should be designing it?

Nate: Yeah, for sure. I think, at least the way I think about it, there's a lot of different models of the way that we look at this stuff at LinkedIn. But a way that you can think about it on a simple rubric would be where are you in your career? Literally how much time have you spent in your career? Are you early? Are you an established senior leader? Are you kind of climbing a career ladder or kind of looking to grow your career to pivot in some way? And then how familiar are you with LinkedIn? So, you can kind of look at those as two axis almost to say-

J: Right.

Nate: I'm a senior leader and I have a lot of experience with LinkedIn, I'm going to use it in a really different way. Or, I'm brand new to LinkedIn and I'm early in my career. There's more help that we can provide to just get you kick started on how to use LinkedIn and what it can do for you at that stage. Those things really do change over time. There's a lot of inflection points with usage of LinkedIn if you're looking for a new job. Right? That's a really direct need. If you're looking to whether it's to upgrade where you are right now or if you're looking for a pivot entirely.

A really interesting one that's kind of newer for us is how does learning, or ongoing education kind of factor into LinkedIn was one of the most exciting things that happened in the last couple of years was Lynda joining the LinkedIn team and then us working on our own learning product kind of in conjunction with a Lynda team. All sorts of great learning from them. But that really changes up how LinkedIn might be used if you know of it as a place for professional development. How can I advance my career through learning that's really focused on my areas of interest or on my past professional experience?

J: Yeah, sure.

Nate: Do I want to stay current with new tools? Do I want to learn from great leaders who are leading courses on LinkedIn learning? Really different from what we've dealt with before and fitting that in to a complex system is not easy. A lot of work to do there.

J: Yeah. It's not like you can just bolt it onto the side.

Nate: Right.

J: I mean, it's completely different user journey and a completely different set of outcomes that those people are looking for.

Nate: Totally. Yep. But they're coming to the same place. Got to figure out how to weave that in in a way that feels like it's natural-

J: Right.

Nate: And a way that they would like to engage with it-

J: Yeah. It seems like there's a large amount of overlap between someone who's coming to LinkedIn to network or to find other people to advance their career, and people who are looking for information to get better with, develop a skill set or to learn or to get certified in something.

Nate: Yeah.

J: To do the exact same goal, which is advancing their career.

Nate: Yeah, totally. In our world, at least, we see those two things going hand in hand, but I think-

J: Yep.

Nate: You can often ... It can be a difficult thing to do if you're not used to it. We want to help prompt people in a direction that feels very natural to them. We don't want to beat them over the head. We want it to feel like this is good. It's not creepy. LinkedIn's not peering into my data. But we want to be able to give them a really good experience no matter how sophisticated their experience is with LinkedIn, whether it's just starting or coming later.

J: Yeah. Yeah. So what's next? I mean, you've got this design system. You've been rolling it out across a variety of products. I think anyone who's used LinkedIn within the past couple of weeks has probably seen the new interface.

Nate: Yep.

J: Is that going to mobile? Are you just expanding more and more across the site? Are you digging into particular features, functions, and tasks, and workflows now? What can we expect to see in the next 6 to 12 months?

Nate: Yeah. It's actually a version of this, of Art Deco, that has been applied already to our mobile app. It actually launched there in a previous kind of flavor of it before it came to desktop. So, even more work to do to kind of make sure that those two things are aligned, that we have a really robust library that's available for IOS and for Android. For our team, internally, that's kind of what we're focusing on is making sure that we can bring Art Deco to all these experiences no matter which platform. We're almost there.

We don't usually dig into kind of a page level or feature level, but for us on the design systems side is we're kind of looking at how can we evolve? How can we simplify? How can we reduce the imprint of the design system and our code base? How can we improve that efficiency and make it even easier to work with? That's a big focus for us this year. I think you'll probably see the impact of that in the product, but it's going to be kind of site wide as more product designers work on new features, or make changes or upgrades to these different pieces of LinkedIn you'll see those changes that we rolled into our design system. It will then kind of come to the site hopefully close to all at the same time so it feels like a very cohesive experience.

J: Right. So things just start to look more consistent and the way things work in one part of the app will be the same way they work in some other part of the app and so on.

Nate: Yep. Yeah, that's the goal. Not only on kind of the product feature parity but also all the micro interactions, the brand feel, all that stuff that's kind of part of the systems level. Hopefully that continues to improve. That's our focus, for sure.

J: Yeah. Right. And so I'm curious how you're going to see adoption of the application, people who might be new, how you see their usage of the app increase or how you see them using different parts of the app that maybe they hadn't used before because now they don't have to learn a different way to do things in different spots.

Nate: Yeah. That's one that's really hard to kind of untangle from the rest of the experience, the product experience. I mean, you can really thinly slice testing to see if a small change actually made an impact like that, really kind of A/B test it, put a lot of variations in front of users to really kind of hone that in. But then there's a cost to doing that amount of testing-

J: Yeah, for sure.

Nate: Especially at the scale of the site we're at now. It can be really difficult to untangle the system in its particulars from all the product features or even the layout of a page and how that's changed.

J: Right.

Nate: We kind of have to operate from a level that's a little bit removed from that. Although we do dive in to find out if our pieces are working the way that we want them to and are usable and they're not getting in the way. We get that data back, but really it's usually kind of a step back from that. Is the whole thing working well? Rather than, I don't know, rather than diving into details especially at just the systems level. That's tough.

J: Yeah, it is. Because just because somebody's having difficulty accomplishing a task doesn't mean it's a problem with the design system itself. It could be a problem with the way it was implemented or it could be any number of things. So trying to isolate that is going to be really important.

Nate: Yeah. I'd say there's a huge number of variables that could go into that. It's one of the things that I wish there was an easier way of getting at that in a design system. Because it's kind of ingrained into everything that we're doing at this point, it's difficult to untangle some of those things to get really focused feedback or get really focused metrics on different pieces of it because they're applied in such different contexts often.

J: Right.

Nate: We have done research. We have done testing on particular pieces of the library, but it's always hard to say what use they're going to be put to next and how much the page layout, how much site speed or anything else have an impact on how much engagement that particular component got in that context. It's difficult to know.

J: Yeah. Sure. Well, I've talked to other teams that they are very mature in their usage of the design systems. It's everywhere. Maybe they started from the very beginning and had a design system when they first launched. They actually used the design system as kind of a normalization so they don't consider it as much of a factor as more of a baseline. So we-

Nate: Yeah.

J: Know they're using the design system. Now we can eliminate that as a potential factor and focus on the other pieces. It actually helps them diagnose issues with the site or with the application a little bit faster.

Nate: Yeah, that's great. Yeah. I think that that's a good way of looking at it. You set a baseline and then you kind of change off of that baseline can give you better data- Yeah.

J: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Well, we're running out of time here. I really appreciate you coming onto the show today and spending some time with us. What else would you say is important to know about or what else are you excited about? What would your parting thoughts be for the people listening?

Nate: Yeah. I think the one thing that I maybe didn't get a chance to talk about is we put tremendous effort into accessibility in our design system.

J: Oh, yeah. Good point.

Nate: We have worked really hard to meet all of those guidelines and to not only functionally under the hood for code, for screen readers, for people who have low or poor vision. We've worked really hard to factor that in. I think we've done a great job with it. It's not something we kind of talk about a lot externally but, again, we put a great deal of effort into it.

And that's another place where a design system can really help. Not just accessibility for people who may have something that's more permanently impacting, their visual ability or their usage of the site, but even for things, as silly as it sounds, if you're looking at your iPhone on a really sunny day or it's being projected up on a crappy projector in a bright room. How easy is it for you to still navigate your site and to still be able to use your product? Even those temporary things, accessibility has a big impact on. That is one thing I want to highlight about what a design system can do too, is to bake that in to your entire product. That's a pretty amazing impact that I can have for those users who many have some difficulty there.

J: Yeah. That's a great point, too, because there are a lot of companies who have compliance issues-

Nate: Yeah.

J: Around accessibility. As the web becomes open to more and more people, that's going to be a bigger and bigger factor.

Nate: I think it's incredibly important. It's something that gets talked about a lot. But it's something that I haven't seen baked into a lot of big design systems throughout. I think that they've put good effort to it. It's not something that's easy to do but it's something that's very, very worth doing. And a win for accessibility for the audiences who need it most is a win for everybody.

J: Yeah, exactly.

Nate: Yeah. It's not just for the people who need it the most.

J: Yep. No, I agree completely. I think it'd be interesting to maybe have you back on at some point and talk just about the benefits of accessibility in these systems and how you're opening, not just opening up the usage of the application to a wider audience, but like you said, your point about having low contrast as being projected on a screen. There's a lot of situations where thinking about accessibility actually benefits the application as a whole for everyone that uses it.

Nate: Yeah, totally. When you think about a round doorknob, which can be hard to open in you have arthritis in your hands, that lever doorknob's better but it's also better when you have a bag full of groceries and you need to open it with your elbow.

J: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

Nate: Good analogy for that. Same thing when you're thinking about this for accessibility for a web product or a mobile app.

J: Yeah. Great point. Well, we'll chat offline about getting you back on the show at some point to talk about that.

Nate: Cool.

J: How would somebody get in touch with you if they want to learn more about what you're doing with the design systems or maybe get some feedback on what they're working on? What's the best way to get in touch with you?

Nate: Sure. Well, I have to put a plug in because I work there, but through my LinkedIn profile.

  1. Cornelius: That's going to be the obvious choice, right?

Nate: Yeah. That's the obvious choice. Just reach out to me. If you want to write a note for a connection request just letting me know that what you're interested in talking about, that'll be great. Yeah. But find me there. I'm also on Twitter at @heywhatsupnate. Those are kind of the two places that I hang out.

J: All right. Cool. We'll link to those things in the show notes, too.

Nate: Yep. Cool.

J: Well, Nate, it's been great having you on the show today. I really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to chat with us. We will get this up as soon as possible. I'm looking forward to having you on the show again.

Nate: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. It's been great to be on here and talk about it. Hopefully it was helpful.

J: It sure was.

Nate: Cool.

Outro: That's it for today. Thanks for listening to Design Driven. We're glad you enjoy the show. Have comments, questions, or an idea that you'd like us to cover? Point your browser to designdriven.biz and click Contact Us on the top of your screen. We'd love to hear from you. Tell your friends and colleagues about the Design Driven pod. Post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or send them an email and tell them to go to designdriven.biz, or wherever they find their podcasts. Until next time, remember what Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, said, "Good design is good business."