What is an Implementation Methodology? And what should one do?

Imagine walking into your favorite coffee shop. You like it for the coffee, but also for its ambiance: maybe it’s warm and cozy, comfortably furnished, folksy and unassuming. Or maybe it’s sleek, with clean lines and hypercaffeinated music.

But whether it’s down-home and welcoming, or chic and austere, the space feels the way it does—and attracts its particular clientele—because of the intuitive, implicit information it communicates about what it is, who it’s for, and what to expect.

This ambiance doesn't happen by accident. It's the same on the web.

Every choice we make about how an experience looks, feels, and works combines as a fabric of perceptual and functional patterns that informs, attracts, brands, and communicates value.

Design systems empower organizations to create and nimbly control the functional and perceptual patterns that become the user experience, as well as:

  • govern how work and communication flows within organizations
  • orchestrate how sites are updated and maintained
  • extend technology and brand elegantly across multiple sites and channels

If a design system is to be able to accomplish all this and more, it must reflect the reality of the organization of which it is part: its identity, its long-term business goals, its customers/clients/users. And none of it happens by accident.

Design systems are the result of organizational will, technical expertise, self-reflection, and long-term vision. (And, yes, a whole lot of coffee.) The build process necessarily catalyzes the self-reflection and self-knowledge. In fact, we believe the two sides are inseparable, more Möbius strip than coin: a design system cannot be incepted without the deep digging that unearths (and binds together) the core purpose of the product and the identity/vision of the organization.

Thus, a design system implementation methodology is both left brain and right, intuitive and schematic. The process informs product as it unfolds. In other words, the how defines the what.

No matter the client, the implementation methodology provides the structure in which to freely move, discover, iterate, create, and experiment without ever losing track of the big picture.

But in a phrase, implementation methodology is the sequence of steps that bring a design system into being.


One size fits all?

When an organization sets out to build and implement a design system, their methodology should detail how their design system is conceived, designed, vetted, and built according to their specific needs. Determining organizational purpose, and thus what one's design system is and does, is baked into the methodology.

But every organization is different. And creating and implementing a design system takes into account every aspect of an organization: its technology and tools, its people and culture, its vision and goals for growth, its pain points and deficits.

So why does it make sense to bring the same implementation methodology to the beginning of every project, as opposed to approaching every organization with a blank slate, paying keen attention to their needs, their story, their individuality?

We believe it makes sense to do both.


Concrete Methodology, Fluid Implementation

Our implementation methodology is:

  • A roadmap that clearly communicates the essential steps and ensures they’re all fulfilled. At any point, any stakeholder should be able to point to the map and know what’s been accomplished, what still remains, and know exactly where they are.
  • A series of guideposts. Since every client is different, how we move through those guideposts is never the same.
  • A tool for catalyzing the deep investigation and self-reflection an organization must undertake in order to incept the best purpose-driven product for them.
  • Flexible and robust. It can handle all kinds of inputs, needs, and situations, meeting clients where they’re at.
  • A collaborative discovery which informs the implementation process as it’s unfolding.

No matter the client, it’s within the framework of the concrete methodology that we find the freedom to move, discover, iterate, create, and experiment without ever losing track of the big picture. How modular will your system be? How will it be governed? Who will maintain it? The axes along which decisions are made are clearly defined. The process of answering them is explorative, reflective, and aspirational.

This entire series is about the specific, granular steps that constitute an implementation methodology. In today’s post, to lay the groundwork for better understanding those steps, we wanted to highlight three mainstays of sound methodology.


Sound methodology creates perspective and aligns purpose.

User needs inform the purpose of the product. The purpose of the product in turn informs the design principles used to build it. A clear, flexible guide that keeps the project connected to its core purpose, and certain of its design principles, better ensures a product with long-term value and functionality.

And when we say users, we mean everyone who tends and uses the design system. If a design system is to unify direction, reduce headaches, and empower your organization with a new clarity of purpose, its inception must invite broad participation. Ensuring that everyone feels inspired to add input to the aspects of the design system relevant to their role creates a more robust product, with more buy-in, that everyone is more likely to value and use correctly.

Sound methodology guides the design system’s implementation, smooths its adolescence, and extends its functional life.

Technology is supposed to evolve, and therefore, any organization’s relationship with the technology they use can never be static. A design system acknowledges the reality that in regards to technology strategy and long-term growth, one has never arrived: instead, a design system empowers organizations to stay up-to-date, well-maintained, and responsive to the market by decreasing their pain and resource threshold to make, do, and act.

Your design system will help your organization grow, and your design system must be able to grow along with it. A discovery-rich implementation methodology embeds core purpose, design principles, and clearly defined governance at its center so the design system can grow in the right direction. And as new roles emerge, and people come and go, a well-utilized design system helps organizations transition smoothly, clarifying creative direction even in times of change.

Sound methodology addresses every aspect of an organization, not just its technology.

A design system best serves an organization if:

  • it is implemented with an awareness of governance and business goals.
  • it lays groundwork for gathering data and reflecting/iterating on the design system to better guide its evolution.

A well-maintained design system is a substrate for supporting the interlocking roles within organizations that combine to serve a common purpose.

Next week:

We’re excited to introduce you to our actual implementation roadmap. We’ll look at the major milestones of design system implementation, and how the structure of our roadmap generates relevance by inviting meaningful input from every participant in the design system.

Follow us on Medium to join us on the journey, and thanks for reading!