Running a design systems drop-in clinic

For the past three years our Constellation design systems team has run a weekly drop-in clinic.

It's proved an excellent way to get to know our consumers, increase engagement and visibility. We've had many ups and downs (and the odd dinosaur!) so I thought I would document what we've learned.

Why a drop-in clinic?

Running a drop-in was the idea of our then design systems head Lily Dart. Our design system was new, we needed consumers, contributors and to get our message out to thousands of developers and designers across the country.

We decided to run a drop-in each Thursday afternoon. We would sit around a table in our London office and run a call for folks outside London. We invited product people to come and talk to us about their problems and learn how to consume our growing component library.

We didn't have all the answers but between us we had a broad range of product design, content, accessibility and engineering skills. We'd use the downtime between visitors to run our team show-and-tells and chat through relevant team stuff while we were all together.

If you build it, they will come

For the first few weeks we sat there looking eager and NO-ONE SHOWED UP. It was like being that kid who throws a party and no-one comes (apart from the kid who is there to take photos to post on Insta to cement your loser status forever).

Occasionally someone mooched past and idly nibbled our biscuits. Our UX designer went into a meeting room and phoned us and we got excited because we thought we had a real customer.

Go where the people are

We got feedback and realised we were in the wrong location. Most London product labs had moved to a different building so we found a room there instead. It was actually a nice shout to get the team together at a different location each week. It took us out of the day-to-day and meant we often had lunch together.

Word slowly spread and visitors started to trickle in with one or two teams stopping by each week. We upped our biscuit game and lured people in with donuts and stickers.

Gradually drop-in afternoons started to fill up. Designers realised we were an extra pair of eyes to help unpick a UX problem or help with a new pattern. Developers came with accessibility bugs off the back of testing and we were able to fix problems blocking their release. Because we got visibility over many different product journeys we were able to connect teams who were trying to solve a similar problem, like a low-budget UX dating agency.

Designer dressed as a dinosaur

Some afternoons were so full we joked we needed to install one those supermarket deli-counter ticketing machines. One week we even helped a dinosaur.

Running remotely during Covid

When the Covid lockdown started we continued to run the weekly call from home. It was quiet for the first couple of weeks as teams settled into a new routine but demand quickly picked up.

We had always run drop-in on a 'first-come-first-served' basis but we fast discovered this didn't work online. We asked teams to pre-book slots. I was reluctant to introduce a booking system as it's not really our team's vibe but I was proved wrong. Pre-booking has helped us structure the sessions and anticipate what is coming. If you don't want to book you can still phone in anytime and wait until we're free.

One learning from running remotely has been how unintentionally London-centric our previous efforts were. We focused on supporting London teams we could meet face-to-face and the dial-in was a bit of an afterthought. Running remotely has meant we have engaged with product teams from all over the country. We need to maintain these relationships when we move back to an office setup and make the dial-in the focus.

3 most common themes

After running around 100 clinics it's been interesting to see themes emerge. We see a lot of form journeys for customers to apply for products like insurance, accounts, cards and mortgages. But we've also seen our components used in ways we never anticipated which is super cool. These are the 3 most common things we see...

1. Overcomplicating it

80% of our advice is just suggesting designers remove stuff, simplify and consider plain text or an input box instead of a fancy widget. We see a lot of accordions. Accordions inside accordions inside accordions, like some heinous accordion inception plot.

2. Offering the user choice when there is no choice

This is the probably the most common problem we see across journeys. The appearance of choice between options when only one choice is available based on the user selection.

"Remove the illusion of choice if there is no choice" sounds like something Yoda might say, if he worked on a design system.

3. Our product needs a large / red / yellow / flashing / arrow-shaped button

We fought this fight so many times we called on the services of a behavioural economist to prove how different colours, shapes and prominence influence consumer behaviour. It can lead user's decisions and potentially encourage outcomes that may not always be in the customer's best interest. These incremental inconsistencies also result in long term design debt. This FCA paper has come in handy.

Drop-ins wins

  • Engagement and visibility. As a design system we are open to a good discussion, we're transparent and there for our consumers. We're here to give advice but we're not the design police. If your research and testing goes against our advice we're keen to learn from it and update our guidance.
  • Contributions. We love contributions! If a pattern has tested well, is accessible to all and will be useful across many journeys then we are always keen for teams to contribute. You're our favourite customer, have a sticker AND a biscuit. 🍪
  • Bug fix. Most weeks someone drops in to report a bug with our code or design libraries. We fix this for the next release and it's fixed for everyone. Small quick wins.
  • Visibility and collaboration across brands and products. We've been slowly able to connect teams working on similar patterns which saves time and money and builds relationships.
  • Time-boxing everyone's ad-hoc requests to one afternoon a week. We all receive a lot of individual queries and it's great to be able to say "book a slot on Thursday and we'll run through together then".

If you're a design systems team I would highly recommend a regular drop-in session. If you have any queries about ours say hi 👋

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Geri Reid

I’m Geri, a UI and UX designer from London

I've spent the past 5 years working on design systems.

I'm currently at News UK as Lead Designer on NewsKit. Prior to that, I was Principal on the Infinity design system at and before that, was design lead on Constellation, Lloyds Banking Group design system. Way back, I designed digital products at UBS and Bank of America.

These days, I’m more interested in a product that is inclusive than a product that looks pretty. Be kind ♥️