📦 Platform work takes longer (#30)

June 10, 2021


Yesterday I wrote to (most of) you about how platform work is slower than product work, and why it's OK that it takes longer.

If you haven't read the email yet, you can read it on my blog.

Jimmy asked me a great follow-up question and I wanted to take a moment to share my answer publicly so that we can all learn together.

I’m not struggling with the DS work I do now but I certainly did when I first started. I’m definitely seeing it in my teammates though, especially those that are still in both worlds. I’m curious if you have any ideas for helping guide folks new to this, that’s where I’m struggling these days. The only solution I’ve had so far is to ensure them our pace is fine and I expect to hit some bumps in the road.

Anxiety about designing and building too slowly can be caused by either internal or external forces. It's important to determine what is triggering feelings of anxiety for your teammates.

Internal Source of Anxiety

Many engineers and designers have learned to evaluate themselves based on their ability to ship products quickly and efficiently. They've been promoted and praised on this basis, and it's become a core part of their work identity. When this is taken away, it's a shock.

I've found a pretty simple exercise that can help people see that it's totally acceptable for design systems work (and platform work in general) to take longer.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Pick a component the designer or engineer is familiar with.
  2. Ask the designer what they'd need to do to design that component for a single, specific use case.
  3. List out everything they say. (hint: The list will probably be pretty short).
  4. Ask the designer what they'd need to do to design that component for a generic use case.
  5. List out everything they say. This list is going to be significantly longer.
  6. Look at both lists side by side. This is the aha! moment –– of course the longer list will take longer.

The key to this exercise is explaining that the ratio of effort to value is very similar between the two cases. A Button designed for a specific use case is significantly less valuable than a Button that works across use cases, so the amount of effort the designer puts into a design system button should be higher.

External Source of Anxiety

Even if your teammates know that design systems work should take longer, there can still be external pressure from stakeholders to ship quickly. Those stakeholders usually have a different set of incentives from your team. This is the classic tension between platform teams and product teams.

In this case, it's really important to try to alleviate the pressure from those stakeholders so that your team can focus on what's really important -- building the design system.

Obviously, this is a bit more difficult than resolving the internal source of anxiety. It requires deep knowledge of the cultural and political forces that are specific to the company you work for.

I think the first step is to evaluate whether your stakeholders are causing your team to feel anxious about speed. If so, can you educate your stakeholders about the differences between product and platform work? How can you buy your team time and space to execute?

Keep the questions coming! I love hearing from you.

Talk soon, Mae

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© 2023 Mae Capozzi