Steady Flow of Truth
We set up central repositories for our design system artifacts and establish a steady flow of components and optimizations between them.
Single Source of Truth is a key concept of design systems. It describes the practice of structuring information such that every individual element is stored and edited in only one place. A SSOT helps to prevent redundancies and unwanted variances and can be called upon to settle disputes. Depending on an organization's goals and background, their SSOT for design components might be a code repository, a documented set of guidelines, or a comprehensive UI kit (built and maintained in tools like Figma or Adobe XD). Being able to rely on a Single Source of Truth when designing and developing digital products in teams is critical for avoiding the accumulation of technical and design debt. It may, however, require strict governance processes and centralized responsibilities, contradicting some of the tenets described in Win Friends, not Battles.
Lean Design System proposes a more flexible approach: Instead of having one Single Source of Truth, we establish a steady flow of new components and optimizations, continuously populating several semi-independent repositories. In doing so, we aim to:
  • foster cross-functional design and development processes to better understand our respective struggles and establish collective ownership to break down information silos
  • promote exploration and continuous optimization
  • avoid building and validating unrealistic prototypes that do not adequately reflect the actual capabilities of our technology in order to save us time and frustration
It should be noted that Steady Flow of Truth heavily relies on Design Codification to work as intended. If we don't want to adopt Design Codification as a guiding principle, we might have to make some adjustments or skip this tactic altogether.
The following diagram (fig. 1) outlines how the stream of development ideally populates the different repositories of our design system, as well as each station's role in the process. But let's go through them one by one.
Fig. 1: Steady Flow of Truth

Code Repository

Lean Design System methodology strongly encourages the adoption of Design Codificationprinciples. Design Codification, if done right, enables teams to collaborate much more naturally and empowers designers by providing them with powerful levers. This is why we should make our design system's code repository our main canonical repository. Whatever is defined in the code repository should ideally represent the ultimate truth from which we derive everything else. Any further documentation should complement it. However, we don't necessarily need a comprehensive component library right away. The concept of Design Tokens (and the tactic of the same name) is a great place to start the process of Design Codification. Design Tokens allow us to codify our UI components step by step in a bottom-up manner. Radical Modularity proposes a flexible UI architecture that utilizes 3rd party front-end frameworks to help us with some of the heavy lifting in building digital products. Both concepts are compatible with all modern UI development paradigms, including utility-first and CSS-in-JS approaches.

UI Kit

Our UI Kit lives in a modern UI design tool such as Figma, Adobe XD, or Sketch. While some of these tools provide ways to generate code automatically, the corresponding workflows can make us too dependent on a specific tool or framework. Also, the code quality may not be up to scratch, as there are semantic gaps that still prove hard to bridge from this side of the handoff process. Instead, Lean Design System promotes the adoption of Design Tokens as a much more effective and fluent approach to the integration of design and development efforts. For that reason (and as we can see in fig. 1), the UI Kit should always be based on the latest definitions in our code repository. In other words, we quite literally trace components exactly as they are rendered on devices and make them available as design components within our UI Kit. What may seem a bit cumbersome at first will ensure that the UI Kit never takes the lead over the code repository. A component that can't be easily built using our technology should not be part of our UI Kit. This way, prototypes we design will always be close to the real thing and all testing we perform will be valid. We should always only have one central and shared UI Kit file (or file structure in the case of a very large or complex component library).

Documentation

Especially during the early stages of cultivating our design system, all textual documentation can (and should) be kept lightweight and high level. Most annotations and comments can even live directly in the code repository (as code comments) or in our UI Kit (as meta text elements). Minimum Viable Design System suggests to maintain a simple knowledge hub in which we reference all elements and processes our design system encompasses. Beyond that, a set of design principles can help explain the reasoning behind our design and development decisions. Just like with our UI Kit, any textual documentation must not contradict the definitions in our code repository. See also: A Living Handbook.

UX Vignettes

UX Vignettes are focused prototypes, covering a defined user scenario or workflow end-to-end. We build UX Vignettes using the components provided by our UI Kit. Ideally, UX Vignettes should be clickable and run on all targeted platforms. When determining our design tooling, prototyping capabilities should be a main criteria, as the process of building, testing and updating them should be quick and easy. If we want to make improvements or add new elements to our UI Kit's component library (because, for example, a project presents us with a new and unique challenge), we document them in separate Tweaks files. These Tweaks files are shared design files in our design system stream.
Several tools and plugins are introducing functionalities for creating design files from React code. While they don't seem to have reached the maturity needed for productive use yet, this is certainly a trend to keep an eye on.

Tweaks

We document all changes and additions to our UI Kit in separate Tweaks files, which are shared design files of the same type as the UI Kit itself. Tweaks can be the result of project work or regular optimization efforts. Whatever their origin, if we agree on their validity, we feed them into the code repository through the process of codification. Once codified, we can then make them available in our UI Kit by tracing them.

Dev Specs

The exact form and fidelity of our development specifications heavily depend on the type of project and the technologies used. But typically, they should consist of a clickable (and testable) prototype and potentially some supporting explanations. Video recordings of the prototype can help to further clarify the desired flow and functionality. Ideally, our developers should be able to effortlessly understand which components (from the code repository) they must apply in order to build the final product. Due to how the flow is set up, our dev specs may not always utilize the latest tweaks we came up with; however, this is not really a concern as the code repository eventually provides the binding blueprint for individual components and may already contain all new improvements.

In conclusion

Every project we work on and every prototype we design can produce tweaks that flow downstream until they reach our code repository—from where they benefit everything we build henceforth.
By establishing a Steady Flow of Truth, we populate and optimize our component repositories continuously. Every project we work on and every prototype we design can produce tweaks that flow downstream until they reach our code repository—from where they benefit everything we build henceforth. A more advanced element of a Lean Design System infrastructure is the provisioning of automated pipelines. Designers should be able to trigger builds themselves without having to wait for regular deployments. Build pipelines can greatly improve the flow efficiency through a design system stream as described above, because they allow us to test our changes on the spot. A minimum viable approach to this concept could be to compile a sandbox page (or app) based on our Design Tokens repository. Once our infrastructure reaches a sufficient level of maturity, all improvements we make can even be propagated directly into live products.

Where this tactic fits in

🙏 This tactic benefits from
💪 This tactic supports
Design Codification and Design Tokens are both key concepts for enabling a smooth flow through our repositories.
MVDS provides a helpful frame of reference for establishing our system repositories.
The way Steady Flow of Truth structures the flow of design improvements, designers are encouraged to assume collective ownership of the code base.
Understanding Steady Flow of Truth is a good starting point for setting up our first component and documentation repositories.

Authors and contributors

D. Kurfess
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On this page
Code Repository
UI Kit
Documentation
UX Vignettes
Tweaks
Dev Specs
In conclusion
Where this tactic fits in