💡 Don't over-emphasize adoption in early stage design systems (#25)

April 27, 2021

Many design systems teams track adoption as a key performance indicator. This makes a lot of sense -- what's the value of a design system if no one uses it? Adoption is undoubtedly one of the most important metrics that the team can quantify.

But aiming for lofty adoption goals in the first 6 months to 1 year of a design system's life span can be a trap. Especially before the design system reaches its inflection point.

This is not unique to design systems -- all successful software has to reach an inflection point for it to become widely adopted. The inflection point is the moment when users decide that using the new software is worth the effort or cost of adoption. However, the amount of time that it takes for a design system to reach an inflection point is much longer than many other software projects in your average late-stage startup.

When you set aggressive adoption goals for an infant system, you set your team up to miss its metrics from the start. Consistently missing metrics in the early stages of a design systems launch can be detrimental for several reasons:

  1. It gives the perception of failure even if the design system is progressing
  2. It makes it harder to convince the business to continue investing in you
  3. It has negative impacts on team morale and cohesion

As with any software launch, it is important to set reasonable KPIs to push the project forward. Consider metrics that are more appropriate for an early system, and that represent the foundational work that your team needs to do. Some examples might be:

  1. The number of page views on an RFC describing the proposed design system
  2. The number of attendees to a bi-monthly office hours
  3. The number of critical foundational features shipped per quarter (initial version of design tokens, release strategy, initial set of components)

These types of metrics will track how quickly the organization is approaching the inflection point, and will translate into adoption soon enough.

Of course, you need to be ready to track adoption trends when the time is right. So yes, start to capture usage data (probably manually at first), so that you have a benchmark when you do start taking adoption more seriously. But don't sell the business on adoption in the first 6 months to a year.

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© 2023 Mae Capozzi