Contributing to a design system should be simple, even if you aren't on the core team. Find it, change it, publish it, and everyone uses it! Easy peasy.
Unfortunately, completing most design system features is slightly more complicated. Bug fixes and tiny enhancements should be autonomous and quick. However, most prospective contributors don't know or want to do all the steps involved in delivering large enhancements or new features.
That's why a design system program needs stewards: selfless, knowledgable, attentive and warm people to guide contributors through their work. This post explores what to name the role, how to guide a contributor through their journey, and tips on building your system program's stewards over time.
There's no consistent name for this role across system teams. "We're the core team." "We act as a counselor. "We're a guide." However, two terms stuck out most: shepherd and steward.
For years, I've used shepherd for a core team member assigned to guide a contributor. The job can definitely feel like herding well intentioned yet directionless folk through an unfamiliar place.
For many, a shepherd metaphor invokes lambs, a smart, sensitive, and loyal species. Yet, some perceive lambs as dull, stupid, and impassive, not really the spirit you intend. Shepherds evoke religious themes, too. For a few, lambs even trigger Mariah Carey, who refers to her flock as her Lambily. Sigh. Shepherd has baggage.
Shopify's Polaris design system team refers to the role with a less common name: steward.
Steward resonates. I encountered stewardship in my personal experience managing annual giving for non-profits. Taking responsibility for the interests and intent of contributions mirrors design system motivations. Recently, I've found myself suggesting steward as the preferred term.
Takeaway: Steward, shepherd–you decide. But definitely decide. Name the role of the person assigned to guide contributors through the process.
Once both contributor and steward are named, it's time to build a relationship and get to work. A steward onboards the contributor, guides the work through steps, presentations, and reviews, and fills in gaps along the way.
It struck me how much seasoned leaders relied upon a conversation rather than shunting a prospective contributor to a documentation site.
The initial approach can be a critical, emotionally charged moment. Does the contributor feel welcome, valuable, supported and empowered? Sure, many want to act autonomously with the help of straightforward documentation. Yet, for larger enhancements and new features, a conversation is the best way to get a contributor up and running.
It's remarkable to learn that GOV.UK's team removed documentation about their process. Lighter doc triggered deeper conversation. This stark reversal – document less, engage directly more – caught me off guard and runs counter from most teams' instincts.
It's unrealistic to think that documentation will cover all questions and concerns about all scenarios. It's even less realistic to think a prospective contributor will read and understand it all.
Takeaway: Do contributors a favor: make time to talk to contributors. Be patient. Sit with them, in their space, to learn where they are at. As the relationship deepens over time by working together, continue helping a contributor along and teaching them each step of the way.
When onboarding a contributor, beware your instincts. Ask yourself: is it to a contributor's advantage to learn all the steps and sub-steps now? Must we plan all the presentations and reviews during this kickoff? Time to dig into handoffs off in opening minutes?
Slow your roll. Contributions can be intimidatingly complicated. Steps to high quality and community buy-in may be lengthy, arduous and often irrelevant to a contributor's typical day-to-day. Not only don't they want to do it all, but they won't end up doing every step either. So why teach them?
Instead, focus on next steps. Usually, their motivation is concentrated on designing a variation, writing code, or composing a guideline. While they should leave appreciating testing, reviews, and community engagement, onboarding isn't meant to train them for every protocol and eventuality.
Takeaway: Focus on next steps to build momentum. On the other hand, allude to-but don't deeply plan for-the longer road ahead.
Contributor confidence is critical.
In the conversation, ask questions. "Would you be comfortable creating a range of visual test cases and running browser tests?" may yield a confident "😃 Sure!" If so, you are off to a great start. Yet, followup inquiries "How about marking up test cases for VRT?" and "Have you written unit tests before?" may yield "Ummm 😬." and "No 😩." respectively.
In an open community, no one wants to feel judged. Discussing personal capabilities can elicit emotionally vulnerable moments of truth. Don't expect a contributor to know how to do everything. Instead, stewards must teach while protecting confidence, acknowledging limits and reassuring that it's OK to not know everything.
Takeaway: Start with obvious and easy expectations, and establish boundaries from there. Avoid dwelling on intimidating tasks that turn them off. Instead, be enthusiastic! Reassure contributors that what they offer is valuable and they needn't know and do everything that must be done.
Onboarding should conclude by discussing pace, cadence and collaboration. At a minimum, check in regularly and informally ("How's it going?") via messaging or email. Effective stewards also establish regular touchpoints (weekly? every other week?) and schedule brief prepping sessions prior to presenting to community peers.
Should a contributor embed in system team rituals like planning, standup, or review demos? Not usually. A contributor has their own rituals to worry about, and another team's ceremonies can feel an awkward place to ask questions and provide updates. Instead, the steward is responsible to represent the work and update the system team regularly.
What to avoid? A stalled contributor. A contributor's other work gets in the way sometimes. I get that. It happens. However, contributions stall just as often because a contributor doesn't hear from a steward and doesn't know what to do next. They feel blocked or paralyzed, work stops, and that's avoidable.
Takeaway: Once a contributor starts, the steward pushes the momentum. Within system team rituals, look to the steward to track the work. In those rituals, poke and remind each other to stay tuned into a contributor's needs.
While doing "the work" is what the contributor came for, that "work" doesn't include all the things system needs to get done. This is especially evident in how system decisions require engagement with a peer community across organizational boundaries.
So many people! So many opinions! Which opinions really matter, anyway? From which teams? A contributor may neither have relationships nor own critique agendas. And those open, visible community venues are a risky place to be vulnerable. It can seem dangerous and beyond their control.
A steward's best response? "Leave that to me." The steward must know how to trigger the routines and involve people who matters most.
Takeaway: Smooth a contributor's journey through a community. A steward is equipped with norms, rituals and tips. Use them to connect contributors at each step they interact with a community.
Work can also stall as a contributor's early vision gives way to the complicated execution across myriad considerations. "How about size?" "What's the dark mode variant?" "There's more states to consider." "How's it appear in this context? And that context?"
For larger contributions, it's rare for a contributor to do all the work. Stewards must balance empowerment and realism. As a contributor slows down, shows resistance, or lacks confidence to continue, it's up to a steward to know what work remains and have a path to get it done.
That doesn't mean that it's the steward's job necessarily. Discussing remaining work may yield other volunteers. If the steward's talent and time permits, that person may also just step in to fill in the blanks, get the last reviews complete or publish the work themselves.
On the other hand, the system team shouldn't always position themselves as responsible for getting work across the finish line.
Whether for design, coding, or - in Shopify's case - documentation, it could set the wrong dynamic of system team dependency rather than autonomy that the system can evolve towards.
Takeaway: Anticipate work a contributor can't or won't complete. From the onboarding chat to the fine details near the end, the steward and contributor must work together to ensure system conventions are met for quality, community engagement, and other tasks.
In the end, a steward is responsible for managing work to completion. Just as important, however, is satisfying the contributor too. A contribution process is a journey of learning how the system works, both within "hard assets" (design files, code files and folders) along with a system's "softer side" of processes, relationships, and community engagement.
Focusing too much on just getting a contribution done? You stand to miss a a meaningful opportunity to deepen a contributor's connection to the system. Aim for both.
So, who on a system team should be stewarding work? For some team members, stewardship and connection with contributors comes naturally. For others, it's not their strong suit. For most, it requires at least some experience themselves with how a system works.
Stewarding is a responsibility assigned to a core or extended team member to work with a contributor through completion. Often, a team member that initially responds and triages the contribution request assumes the steward role. But that needn't and often shouldn't determine a long term pairing.
A contributor will want to be paired with a steward familiar with the subject matter and discipline. It doesn't make much sense to connect a new system team designer with a contributing developer working a complex composition rife with dependencies. Pairing a system developer tuned to complicated internal tools with a brand designer isn't the right match.
Takeaway: Be deliberate with how partnerships are established. Personal relationships and familiarity with disciplines, challenges, system architecture, and organizational units make a big difference.
For systems of smaller scale, it may only ever be one designer or developer that stewards contributions.
In other cases, while anyone swarms to help requests coming into Slack and Jira, fewer may have the experience, connections, confidence or capacity to steward a contribution. Senior design and development leads may steward early on and mentor less experienced teammates to do the same as capacity, interest, and capability permit.
Teams also experiment with different assignment models: an assigned go-to, whoever's available, or a subset of the team dedicated to support. One long-standing team serving 100s of developers talked of dedicating team member(s) to stewarding contributions as a sole responsibility in 2020. Wow, team members dedicated solely to handling contributions!?!? If you are aiming to go from 20 to 200 components, stewarding can be a full time job. Oh, the ways our systems will grow!
Takeaway: Be well-equipped enough, knowledgable enough and ready to serve. As you evolve a system team, identify who's ready now, how to grow others into the role, and how much capacity they'll need to be successful.
Shepherds are usually discipline specific, yet system work crosses disciplines.
Interviews suggest that most designers and developers don't have a strong grasp of process details pursued by the other discipline. However, most also expect system stewards to understand and coach both.
Also, a system team invariably has experts on various part, whether a set of components, a motion language, or package management. For an icon contribution, pair a steward that knows the icon catalog. For a specialized modal stepping through a sequence, identify a steward knowledgable of layering, progressions, forms and dialogs.
Are contributions an opportunity to build steward awareness of system capabilities they've not got experience with? Maybe, but approach with caution.
Pairing contributors and stewards, both of varying expertise, requires balance. As a leader, I want team members to gradually learn the range of system capabilities. However, contributor needs-move confidently, work with a knowledgable contact-trump my team's needs to grow. A contributor will grow frustrated if their steward becomes simply a link in a game of telephone to find every answer.
Takeaway: Favor contributor success over team development. Systems work and expertise spans disciplines and features, so grow stewards capability to serve. Yet, always sure that contributor experience is positive and successful, for you may have yet another steward in your midst!
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