If we ask any design system advocate what are the main reasons to build and maintain a design system, chances are ‘Consistency’ will come up as first or second in their list, together with the ‘A single source of truth’ point, which is pretty much saying the same, with different words. This reasoning is valid but incomplete, and it could lead to a wrong product strategy and overall poor results.
Consistency in Design is the Wrong Approach
There are 3 major problems with a ‘consistency focus’ approach:
1. It is artificial. When designing for consistency, we are not only ignoring our users but focusing on administrative and maintenance tasks instead. Nothing can’t be further from the real purpose of a human-centred system. Uniformity might look good on paper, but it is boring, disconnected from the real use cases, and most importantly, it is inefficient.
In his article ‘Consistency in Design is the Wrong Approach’, Jared M. Spool explains it perfectly:
The problem with thinking in terms of consistency is that those thoughts focus purely on the design and the user can get lost. “Is what I’m designing consistent with other things we’ve designed (or others have designed)?” is the wrong question to ask.
2. It is rigid. A system -to provide us with satisfactory results- needs to be able to change itself, to accommodate and maximise the benefits of constant change. If we aim for consistency above efficiency, we simply are building a monolithic structure with no capacity to respond to the natural product fluctuations: The users needs and behaviour, software and hardware updates or marketing campaigns, to name a few.
3. It kills innovation. As Oscar Wilde said: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” A consistent system is something relatively easy to achieve, but building one that works is a completely different story.
Achieving consistency is easier than the ongoing ‘sweet’ struggle of creating new and thriving solutions, taking risks, exploring the unexplored and breaking parts of the system to rebuild them again. If we make of consistency our primary goal, we can end up rejecting everything that threads that consistency, and with this, the first thing to die in our process will be newborn ideas.
Of the 2 tragedies presented by Mr. Wilde, I personally would choose the first one. That’s the one that keeps us moving.
Design for Coherence
Consistency and coherence might seem like very similar concepts, but they are fundamentally different. Consistency’s sole purpose is to make the elements of a system uniform. It is about how similar the parts look and feel throughout the entire system. On the other hand, coherence aims for clarity. It is about how well something is understood and if it makes sense. If a system is coherent, it will be clear and easy to understand.
Applying coherence over consistency will enable us to build a better, more resilience and flexible system:
1. It is natural. When designing for coherence your focus is not just on building and maintaining the user interface elements, but on the problem you are trying to solve and the people you are trying to help. Everything else will be subject to this. Modifying the user interface won’t be a problem as long as it is properly planned and responding to what Jared M. Spool calls the user’s ‘current knowledge’, which is basically how much the user knows when interacting with your product as a result of the sum of previous experiences.
Funny thing about thinking about current knowledge: when you’re done, your interface will feel consistent. Why? Because it will match the users’ expectations and, where they expect it to behave like something they’ve encountered before, it does. — Jared M. Spool
2. It is flexible. Flexibility can take many shapes when working on products/systems, from strategic, to organisational, decision or operations flexibility. Developing a coherent system easy to understand requires covering the wide range of flexibility types to iterate as often and quickly as needed. Luckily, this is aligned with the need of the system to respond to the constant changes mentioned before.
A coherent approach not only will benefit this important aspect of the system, but it will enhance it. How? For instance, instead of trying to get everyone to use the ‘right’ button, focus on facilitating that everyone contributes to the system by enhancing or creating new buttons if needed. By changing the approach, the users (product teams) will go from being the consumers to the main contributors of the system.
3. A fertile soil for innovation. A coherent design system benefits innovation, but this alone is not enough. Innovation alone often fails to align with the strategic needs of the systems or the problems of the users. Having clarity as the primary purpose of a coherence focus system naturally adds boundaries to the space where innovation happens.
Wait, but innovation with boundaries? Yes, and this is something good, since it doesn’t limit our capacity to think out of the box and bring new ideas to the tables, but adds a clear purpose to these ideas and brings the focus back to what is important: A system that works and serves efficiently its users.
Thinking of consistency as the primary goal of your product or design system can result in clean libraries, tidy components and many things feeling and looking the same, but this doesn’t equal a good experience for your users. Instead,we should design for coherence, tailored solutions for multiple and diverse use cases and advocate for the right balance of flexibility and automation. I believe this is achievable by looking at our systems through the lenses of more scalable human-centred solutions, and this is where coherence comes into play.
Thank you for reading!
This article was written with Writty.