How Design Program Managers can help design systems

Michelle Chin
Michelle Chin
  • Updated

If you are building a design system without a dedicated team, you know it’s common to experience pain points. It might feel unorganized or challenging to get things done because people are only partially resourced to it. Even if you can start building a design system with a dedicated team, it can feel challenging to scale because of the organization and coordination it takes to run a team efficiently.

Just when things might feel futile, don’t worry; there is a solution for this! Include a design program manager (DPM) on your team. We’ll cover ways a DPM can help and some approaches for obtaining one. Once they join, you’ll probably feel a sense of relief and optimism that things can move forward.


What’s a Design Program Manager, and what do they do?

Design Program Managers support design org initiatives to ensure they run smoothly and move towards their goals. Some DPMs focus on horizontal initiatives like obtaining tools, creating processes, coordinating org-wide events for the team, etc. Other DPMs may focus on more efforts, such as project management, quarterly planning, prioritization, etc., for a specific product or suite of products. Regardless of their scope, their main goal is to support the design team so their designers, researchers, and writers can focus on crafting high-quality work. It eliminates the mental lift to chase after information, find people, deal with the budget, etc.

DPMs usually love organizing, building connections, identifying and solving problems, and figuring out just enough processes to keep the team moving. 


How can DPMs help with design systems?

There are several ways a DPM can help your design system. DPMs can focus on the logistical and operational aspects of building, maintaining, and ensuring a design system gets implemented. This allows contributors to concentrate on the details of components, patterns, tokens, etc. Let’s dive into some specific ways DPMs can help.


Get the team organized

There are A LOT of moving parts in a design system. Components need to be built for the design tool and in the code. There are also variations for components. Not to mention there’s the documentation required. Scale this to multiple brands, themes, or products, and things can get messy.

Like “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction, DPMs can assess the situation, make sense of the chaos, and orchestrate the next steps to ensure everyone knows what they’re doing and can keep moving. They help set up tools such as trackers and kanban boards to help prioritize, monitor, and assign work.


Keep the team organized

Once contributors know what they’re working on, DPMs can ensure that the work stays on track. They might coordinate stand-ups, check-ins, or other follow-up ways to ensure accountability. DPMs can help figure out how to use existing tools and resources to reduce friction or cognitive load for team members.


Identify where the team might benefit from some processes

DPMs have a keen sense of when and where teams could benefit from a little procedure. If they’re a great DPM, they’ll know just the right amount of process to put in place for your team. It’s usually a balance between getting people on track to meet their goals and still providing enough flexibility that the process is manageable.

With the design system manager or leader, DPMs can help figure out governance, communication, and implementation processes. The idea is to create an excellent experience for their users—those contributing to the design system. 


Coordinate adoption into the products 

Cross-functionally, DPMs can help navigate with Product Managers, other DPMs, Technical Program Managers, or Scrum Masters to ensure product teams are using the latest design systems components and patterns. Suppose your design system team is partially resourced. In that case, DPMs can figure out ways to navigate resourcing, identify dependencies, and negotiate priorities so designers can get design system work and product work done.


Unblock the team

Lastly, DPMs can help unblock the team if challenges arise. DPMs are great at mobilizing around a problem that could be tricky to navigate. This allows the designer to focus on their craft and not worry about the blocker. For example, if someone sets up a three-day workshop at the same time components are due into the system, DPMs can help figure out some options to help everyone involved. And if needed, DPMs can have those conversations with managers and stakeholders about how to reprioritize the work.


Partner with the design system managers

If there’s a design manager, team lead, or product manager for the design system, DPMs can partner with them to ensure the design system can meet its goals. Sure, managers and leads can do what we mentioned above, but they can’t focus on the design system craft and strategy if they take on these responsibilities. DPMs can alleviate the burden of tracking, coordinating, and navigating. DPMs are also helpful partners for managers or leads because they can provide objective or logistical feedback to assist with decision-making.


How can we get a DPM for our design system?

Now that you see the potential advantages of adding a DPM to the design system team let’s talk about some approaches for resourcing. 


Hire a DPM

Ideally, you’d be able to open a position for a DPM and hire one without trouble. But realistically, resourcing can be challenging, especially if the organization didn’t forecast the need earlier.


Consider a contractor

If a full-time hire isn’t possible, a contractor might be able to come in for a few months and help establish some processes and tools for the team to use. At a previous company, we had a contractor come in and help create Jira tickets so I could focus on the strategy and plan for the quarter.


Borrow a DPM

You might not need a full-time DPM or a contractor, depending on your needs. Instead, see if you can borrow a DPM to support you with some efforts. When asking for support, make sure you’re specific with the request, “We need help setting up a sprint board in Jira” or “We need to figure out a governance process that works with our existing delivery cycle.”

If DPMs aren’t available or part of your organization, consider finding other DPM-like roles such as project managers, technical program managers, or scrum masters for support.


What if we can’t get a DPM?

Hopefully, you don’t run into this situation, but it can happen sometimes. In a previous position, when I managed a design system, DPMs were in high demand, and I couldn’t get assistance. Instead, I took on much of the DPM responsibilities, but I also set expectations that our pace would be slower since I couldn’t do everything all at once. 

If designers are looking for leadership experience, this might be an excellent opportunity to give them some of these responsibilities. Just be mindful of their capacity. They should be doing operational work in addition to their normal design workload. 

Hopefully, those situations are temporary. While that’s going on, gather data for how well filling in for a DPM is going. Chances are, it’s not going well, and you’ll have some information to demonstrate that. So when the time comes, prepare to ask for headcount for the upcoming year. Pro tip: start having those conversations early (almost be that squeaky wheel), so it doesn't catch anyone off guard when it comes time to ask for headcount.

Let managers and stakeholders know if navigating without a DPM isn’t working. It might open a discussion around how important it is to resource the design system adequately. Alternatively, they might feel there are other pressing priorities. If that’s the case, everyone should understand or expect what that means for the design system. (Usually, the design system won’t evolve as fast as it could or live up to its fullest potential.)


DesignOps for Design Systems

This is one of many articles we’ll be writing about when it comes to leveraging DesignOps for design systems. If you have questions about how your design system can be managed better through DesignOps, feel free to contact us. We’re available on zheroes, our zeroheight Slack community.

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