I had the opportunity this week to talk to Nicole Mors, Product Design Manager at Driveway. We dove into the challenges of managing a living design system, what designers can do to improve accessibility, and whether designers should prioritize learning how to code.
I found the discussion about design systems to be particularly interesting. Managing and growing a mature design system within an organization is a different endeavor than when you first built one, and as Nicole mentions, it isn’t a technical challenge. It’s about people. Knowing when to diverge and keeping the priority of constituencies in mind can help make sure those people have what they need to move quickly and maintain UX consistency.
Hi, Nicole! Hey thanks for making time to talk with me today. Maybe we could start with you just talking about who you are and where you’re working and what your background is, and then we’ll dive in.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m Nicole Mors. I am a designer. I’ve been a designer for a long time. I graduated from design school right into the recession, so that was fun times started out in print, so the little.
Yeah, the little print shop I worked for did not survive, and I had to quickly change gears. So I realized, you know, I’m gonna have to diversify, go digital, and I haven’t looked back since. I legit have not spent a day thinking about being a print designer again, ever. Spent a lot of time working at various little companies cutting my teeth, taught myself to code and went all the way down the rabbit hole with that. So I very much consider myself a technical designer. Spent some time on the agency side, actually working with Megan at Cloud Four. And then most recently I’ve been in product design, which is where I’ve kind of found my niche of sort of technical design and visual, just everything good about product design: UI, UX, you have everything. And most recently I work at Driveway where I am a Product Design Manager, so specifically focusing on the craft of people management and design leadership. And it’s been awesome. Driveway’s a car buying and selling platform where folks can purchase a car from anywhere and have the car delivered to them, and it’s been awesome, Our team is about 30 designers, and I manage personally a third of that.
Can you talk to me a little bit about, you mentioned the, like coding as a designer thing. It’s a big thing at Cloud Four that we talk about a lot. Like our, our engineers are, have art backgrounds, our designers know how to code. And I wonder, like in the broader landscape, is that, is that still a thing that’s a priority? Like when you go to hire, are you looking for that? And then when you see people like designers out there, is this like a differentiating skill or is it something that kind of everybody does now?
Yeah. I feel like people have really passionate views on this, right? Like, this isn’t just like, yeah, oh, to code or not to code. I personally I’ve almost made it a part of the, my professional ethos that I know how to code. And so it’s hard for me to be like, oh yeah, designers, it doesn’t matter. I think if you are designing for the web, that is your canvas, that is your medium and you should know how it works. When I was building out my team, especially for design systems, I looked for designers who had front end chops. You don’t have to be a developer, but you have to know how designs are going to be realized in the browser in order to be able to design for it. So yeah, definitely feel pretty passionately about that, and I do think it is a differentiator and it certainly differentiated me in my career and the paths I took.
Yeah, you know, I know you have a passion around accessibility, and so much of what makes a website accessible is very technical, right? We’re talking about like how the code is marked up and how, like whether an ARIA attribute is there or something. And I just, I wonder, if you don’t have that experience, how, how do you learn what’s okay from an accessibility standpoint or how to design for accessibility?
So I think, I think if you don’t know how to code designing for accessibility is theory based, right? And you’re looking at things that you have control and knowledge over, like color contrast, the sort of visual sides of accessibility.
Yeah. So on the accessibility, kind of, train of thought, what are the things that designers can control and can influence because so many things are decided at the implementation stage?
Yeah, I think designers should have a perspective over, I think there’s a lot, you can still imply tab order without knowing how to code, how screen readers should read things, what alt text should be on images. And then the easy things, like I mentioned before, color contrast. They really can have opinions about all that and be able to communicate it to engineers. It shouldn’t just be left up to implementers, all those considerations. Designers should have equal stake in that. And, if the conversations are happening sooner than less, the, there’s less issues in the browser and the experience will just be better.
Right. So you’re kind of moving the conversations earlier in the funnel.
You also, I think, have a pretty unique background with design systems, I know when you worked at Cloud Four, we sort of worked on building design systems for clients and now you’re on the product side of things where your job is maintaining the design system, right? And growing the design system. What particular challenges do you see on the day to day with, like, being the, I don’t know, are you like the ambassador of the design system?
Yes, 100%. I am the design system. And we have a team, we have a content designer on our design system team, a lead designer and a senior designer. So there’s about four of us and we currently don’t have any dedicated engineers. So we have like a sister team that we partner with on the engineering side. What I will say about like handing off a design system versus living with the design system is two completely different worlds. And, you know, the pattern libraries and design systems we handed off at Cloud Four were pristine, you know, very controlled, and you package it up, and you hand it to them and you’re like, here you go. You know, have fun with that! Obviously we were there for support, but it’s nowhere near the same as like being in the product on the day-to-day and implementing your own system and then maintaining it, advocating, answering questions just on the regular. I had so much angst thinking about the design systems I handed off and what people had to do to implement them, especially into existing products, like that is no simple situation. And there’s so much that you learn when you’re in a product implementing a system, so many concessions. You have to make so many things to think through that I was just like, oh my gosh, what did those clients, what did those people do? Do you know what I mean, are they ok?
Yeah. I mean, it takes a life of its own. Right. And like, you hope that, like you’ve set things up in a way that like it can grow and live, but it is a growing and living thing. And what, like, are there particular challenges that you’ve had to overcome or that you’re currently working through that like you’re able to talk about? Cause I know, you know, obviously it’s work stuff. Yeah.
What current challenges are we facing right now? You know it’s hardly ever like design problems or code problems, it’s always culture and people problems, adoption problems, the business wanting to invest in the design system. It’s, those are the sort of issues that become, you know, the bigger, stickier issues versus just like, oh, the design of components, that stuff
We need a new button. Yeah. .
Yeah. That stuff is, is pretty, you know, that’s like the regular stuff. That’s like, “keep the lights” on stuff. It’s the other bigger, meatier problems that that become harder. And it’s, it’s almost like politics. You kind of like go shake hands and kiss babies and talk about the design system and advocate for it with all the groups and all the teams. Yeah. So that’s like the work.
Right, like, I mean, at the end of the day, it’s a tool that people use and so it’s people that you have to make sure understand the value of it, understand why they need to use it, you know? Yeah. Get, get on board so that they actually start using it. Things like things like that.
Yeah. And it’s, I’ve been at Driveway almost two years. We spun up the design system team right when I started. So there’s been a team in place. The system has grown, and to this day we still have to be like, “hey, use the design system in your project.” Like to this day, two years later, on a, you know, a relatively mature team, we still have to be like, “mm mm you know.”
“Hey, hello, do you know we have a component for that?”
Exactly. What you’re doing over here looks very similar to what we’re doing over here. There’s a whole thing for that, you know? So, so it’s still, you know, still work in progress for sure,
But do you see the, like the benefits of it, like the efficiencies that are gained when it, when it’s working the way that it’s supposed to?
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. we can move faster, you know, in the design process we have consistency. It’s, you know, our brand is supported in a way that makes sense throughout the product. When the design system’s utilized. There’s just, you know, the benefits are there for sure. Yeah, the benefits are there. It’s just…
Like, do you think it’s a workflow thing? Like I’m trying to get this thing done, I can do it faster if I just do this really quickly, and then the design system wizard shows up and says, but hey, , think longer term, grab this component, everybody wins!
Yeah. I think it is a skillset. And like what, sort of, stage your designers are at? I think for Driveway, we were in sort of this startup stage where we were hiring a lot of agency designers, no offense been there myself. A lot of visual designers and everything was bespoke started from scratch, you know what I mean? So those folks who were in that timeframe are, are probably just like, I love pushing the pixels, I love creating the beautiful mockups of things as opposed to maybe a designer who’s more skilled in UX, who’s gonna be like, here’s my grab bag, here’s my toolkit. I’m gonna start just putting together flows and solutions utilizing the system, and I’m gonna work at it from that angle a, as opposed to a designer who’s like, I wanna create a beautiful mockup of a solution.
That makes sense. Yeah.
Yeah. So I think it’s that, and it’s just like those different stages of maturity for a design team. And you need, you need both, but at different times. So now we’re moving on to like, we need UX, we need folks to utilize the patterns and components that we have. We need to move fast. We need to make sure the solution and the direction’s, right? We already have the visual design. We already have everything figured out. Just utilize, you know, what works and create the best experience for the customer. And, like pixel perfect, mockups are not like the main focus. It’s really like shipping, fast, shipping the right thing. Yeah.
Yeah. Cool. That, those are the questions I had. Thanks for making time today. I really appreciate you always.