Design system teams are often defined by designers and developers. Although the How We Document survey showed that most successful design system teams have product management in their team we still don't consider this role as valued as they should be within design systems. A Product Manager could be a game changer for your design system, your team, and your organization, so why ignore them?
Treat your design system as a product
Your design system is a product (even if infrastructure might be a better term). Having a UI library, coded components and documentation is important, but if you want to ensure some longevity to your design system, it also requires a backlog, a roadmap, a vision, some communication about it, and much more. However, working on all those other tasks isn’t the designer’s or developer’s responsibility. First, they may not have the skills to do it well. Secondly, spending too much time on those tasks means they would spend less time working on the design system.
This is why having a dedicated role in managing the design system as a product makes sense – so the designers and developers can focus on their main work. A dedicated Product Manager can help align a system's vision with the objectives of the organization, prioritize the roadmap based on those objectives, and create a communication strategy to drive adoption and create feedback loops with the consuming teams when system designers and engineers have the subject matter expertise to build a design system that's compatible with current workflows and technology. Plus, it is much easier to maintain a groomed backlog, maintain intake and support processes, and measure the impact of the design system to ensure ongoing investment when a product manager oversees it.
Product Owner or Product Manager for a design system?
When it comes to assigning the right responsibility of your design system to someone, it may not be obvious if it’s a Product Owner or a Product Manager you need. Just keep in mind that every organization is unique and it might depend on how your company is set up and how they define the roles.
From a Product Manager's perspective, it’s valuable to think of the design system as a product and to think about it strategically whereas Product Owners are often focused on short-term delivery of work, meeting requests from the business etc. That’s why a Product Manager could make more sense for a design system as they’re more focussed on how you deliver and not what you deliver or why.
Remember that the more you are, the messier it can be. If your design system is small, keep it simple and don’t add too many roles to your team. However, having a Product Manager and a Product Owner could also be an option, especially if your design system is big. One could be in charge of the delivery while the other one works on your design system’s strategy. It’s all about your organization's size and your design system’s ambition.
What does a Design System Product Manager do?
At a high level, a Product Manager is responsible for steering the ship and working closely with the design direction of the design system. While they aren't necessarily the leader on the design system team, they are responsible for steering folks in the right direction, ideally through managing the processes, facilitating, and inputting with their particular expertise (ie. product). A few ways in which product owners can leverage design systems are as follows.
When it comes to working with a design system, it implies an entire mindset shift in digital product development. This type of major organizational change can only be achieved through open dialog and opportunities for contributions. This often falls to a Product Manager to be the design systems advocate to the rest of the organization.
If you have a Product Manager in your design system team, they’re probably interacting a lot with your designers and developers. But they could also be responsible for communication with other strategic folks too, such as Leads, Head of, stakeholders and other consumers of the design system. A Product Manager needs to have the overview of who consumes it, and who can be important to help the design system grow, as they often act as the design system champion within the org. It is also important that the Design System Product Manager works with other Product Managers working on products. If the design system relies on other product team’s front-end developers who are also working on product work, they could help, plan and negotiate, especially if the design system team doesn’t have dedicated engineers.
A design system's adoption is often challenged by the people who will use it, and it can also be the biggest barrier to its adoption. Besides building a new product, we ask people to change their work habits. The product manager can play a key role in resolving stakeholder issues and collaborating with teams throughout a multidisciplinary organization.
The tasks and responsibilities
A Product Manager should be a full-time position for all the tasks and responsibilities they need to handle. Basically, the Product Manager is accountable for the design system team delivering what they need, while also responsible for team cohesion. It could mean the role of a Product Manager would be to make the design system team happy. We already talked about happiness and how design systems can be ungrateful because of all the giant dark portion of work that lurks below the water and that nobody sees. Well, this “hidden” work is mainly the Product Manager’s work. Their responsibilities are doing what designers and developers don’t want to do or consider outside of their perimeter. Here is a list of what their responsibilities could be:
- Ensure the design system’s adoption
- Get feedback from the design system’s users
- Ensure the right use of the system
- Help and train the teams
- Improve workflows
- Balance with politics
- Onboarding to new starters, other teams and C-levels to drive adoption and budget
- Manage a backlog and prioritize
- Define the value proposition with success metrics and communication about product features
The difference between managing a design system and managing a product
Even if a Product Manager is familiar with managing a product, managing a design system involves a few minor differences.
Firstly, it's a brand new field that few people know much about, so it's constantly evolving. Moreover, it's a great opportunity to enhance Product Managers' technical and design skills.
One of the biggest differences between managing a standard product and managing a niche product lies in the audience. In a design system, your users are mostly internal product teams within the company, making it easier to connect with them. Because your user group is small, you must be more thoughtful about how you use their time for things like user research. Various user types (designers, engineers, marketers...) require different solutions, and you must satisfy their needs. Also, it means designing and developing solutions tailored to your customer's needs while simultaneously considering ease of use, performance, and accessibility. Moreover, comparing a user-facing product to it, you may have a more challenging time getting quantitative user information due to the scale.
It is more difficult to find success metrics, and one of the most challenging aspects is calculating the value of the design system from the point of view of the business and the consumer. While it may not deliver business value alone, it may enable other teams to do so. Because of this, the Product Manager needs to communicate with all teams constantly. There is more complexity involved in building a design system than building a traditional product and it usually requires more tenacity and resilience since proving its value isn't always easy.
What makes a good Design System Product Manager?
Beyond tasks and responsibilities, a good Product Manager in charge of a design system also requires soft skills.
Having the right mindset
First of all, it's essential to understand what product design is. It's not just a matter of knowing what to do, it's a matter of having the right culture, especially a product design culture. If something that took three weeks to do doesn't fit with the design system's needs, a good Product Manager won't be afraid to toss it. Additionally, the design system should not be viewed as a static product that ends and begins all at once but as a living product that evolves along with a digital offering.
Understanding what their team is doing is vital to ensure you're heading in the right direction, which is why having a healthy working relationship with designers and developers is so important. Specifically, we are referring to empathy and human skills; in other words, the role of a Product Manager is to help their team, not to treat them as mere means or ends.
Having organizational agility
Generally speaking, having strong communication skills is also crucial. Building relationships and collaborating with multiple disciplines is essential to the Product Manager's role since they will be responsible for communicating effectively with diverse groups of stakeholders (designers, engineers, brand and marketing managers...).
A Product Manager needs to understand complex systems well, identify users' needs, and make decisions based on little evidence. It's not an easy job, requiring a certain level of experience; that's why it's recommended to have senior Product Managers manage a design system.
What a Product Manager can bring to a design system team
There are three main things the Product Manager can bring to the design system to make it more effective: adoption, collaboration, and budget increases.
It can take a lot of time and effort to sell your design system to decision-makers and stakeholders. An effective Product Manager will be able to explain the design system to the right people and convince them to use it based on the right arguments. Taking responsibility for it is no longer the responsibility of designers and developers, so they can finally concentrate on their jobs.
By aligning the different teams, a Product Manager can enhance the organization's ability to collaborate. It can be achieved in many ways: organizing workshops, side projects, regular meetings, training sessions...anything that can connect people and make them more collaborative is beneficial. The collaboration will lead to more adoption of the design system, making measuring its success easier.
An important responsibility of the Product Manager is to define the value of the design system. Identifying the right metrics to measure is difficult, but it is essential for the design system to progress.
Ultimately, if all evangelization efforts result in adoption and collaboration, a design system will have maximum impact and ROI, allowing even more budget to be requested.
How will the role of the Product Manager evolve with design systems over time?
In the future, with increased automation and maturity around design systems, the Product Manager will be able to focus on the product's strategy and vision instead of repetitive and time-consuming tasks. It will be more of a mission to ensure that a healthy culture surrounds systems as they are adopted across organizations. And when it comes to culture, it is not just about design systems anymore but it leads directly to designops, and Product Managers can certainly play a role here.
It is also more likely to become a specialization in product management, and we will see more and more roles for design systems. There are already job offers that mention Product Manager - Design Systems in the title of their job descriptions. The question is not so much whether this is a new role to anticipate, but when this role will become the norm.
What does this mean for you?
In the end, a design system is in service of those designers and developers who use it to deliver quality work faster. It is crucial to ensure the system delivers value to your customers by understanding their needs and goals. This is where the role of the Product Manager comes in so that design systems can make the most impact. Design systems grow and succeed when linked to user needs and business goals. And building this strategy and vision for your design system is the Product Manager’s role.
Whether your design system is starting or scaling, you should ask yourself what it means for you as a Product Manager and what you could get out of it. Consider this role as a unique challenge and an excellent way to work on an innovative product and dynamic area that could open a whole bunch of new opportunities.