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U.S. Air Force

Designing at scale through design systems


The U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Business Enterprise Systems Product INnovation (BESPIN) group needed help scaling their design capacity. We’re working with them to implement a design system that’ll enable their growing number of teams to achieve higher efficiency and quality when building digital products.

A pair of hands moving objects around to make a pattern.

The challenge

BESPIN is one of the USAF’s strategic digital solution centers, along with Kessel Run, SpaceCAMP, and others. BESPIN’s mission is to deliver digital transformation outcomes for partner organizations throughout the USAF and the broader defense community — including the Business Enterprise Systems Directorate, which manages a billion-dollar portfolio of IT systems supporting enterprise-wide functions such as finance, logistics, and human resources.

Since launching in early 2019, BESPIN has grown to over 200 military, civilian, and contractor personnel working together on 20+ products. Many of the products that BESPIN teams work on must support complex mobile use cases, such as unreliable network connections and pilots who wear a “knee board” with a device mounted to their leg (sometimes at odd angles).

As BESPIN has grown, so has the need to improve the speed and quality at which their teams design products across web and mobile platforms.

The problem of designing at scale isn’t unique to BESPIN, and has driven high-tech organizations — from 18F to Google — to change the way they design products by incorporating design systems.

The purpose of a design system is to equip teams with a shared library of reusable elements, guided by clear standards, so they can:

  • Develop products faster by leveraging pre-made elements, such as a visual style or web form, instead of repeatedly building similar ones from scratch
  • Create higher quality and cohesive user experiences across different products and platforms via consistent design guidance
  • Enhance cross-functional communication and collaboration between designers and developers through a shared design language
  • Level up abilities to ship meaningful products to users quickly through a system that explains how to do so
  • Waste less time on version control issues, such as incorporating bug fixes or enhancements — with a design system, updates are made once and populate all occurrences
  • Spend more time focusing on larger, more strategic user-experience problems

In recognizing these benefits, BESPIN engaged us to implement a comprehensive design system tailored to the unique needs of their design environment.

The solution

To create an organizational-wide design system for BESPIN, we started off by conducting research to learn more about their designers’ needs, pain points, workflow processes, and tools. From our team’s experience in building robust design systems, such as the U.S. Web Design System, we know that identifying common patterns in the current design environment is critical to pinpointing high-impact opportunities for improvement.

Our research process featured a number of techniques, including a visual design audit, a user interface component inventory, and several rounds of interviews.

As a result of our research, we found that:

  • Overall, current Air Force design doesn’t meet the expectations of users and is often viewed as outdated, overwhelming, and disjointed.
  • Designers look toward existing design systems, such as Google’s Material Design, for inspiration, but these systems can be opinionated and their patterns don’t always work for Air Force projects, especially mobile use cases, and need to be modified.
  • In most cases, teams want something they can use out of the box with little change. Other teams that are more comfortable with making changes and have the resources to do so want a solid foundation that they can build upon and mold to fit their needs.
  • Lack of access to a unified system for design has led to a number of issues — such as breakdowns in product direction and difficulty maintaining design quality while trying to keep up with the pace of agile release cycles.

Based on these learnings, we recommended implementing a BESPIN design system with the following considerations:

  • Leverages a proven design system, such as Carbon, as the foundation
  • Aligns with the Air Force brand
  • Sets reasonable defaults and enables the flexibility to adapt according to the needs of the project
  • Takes into account Air Force-specific design patterns, particularly complex mobile use cases

Illustrates how a design system serves as for the foundation for a web design system and a mobile design system, from which project design systems can be created for specific auidences.

Source: Modified from Spotify

The next phase of our work will focus on creating a comprehensive design system with BESPIN based on the above considerations, enabling teams to build products with greater speed and quality.

The results

  • Gained insights into BESPIN’s needs for scaling design through designer-focused research
  • Recommended BESPIN-specific considerations for a design system and got buy-in from leadership and designers
  • Preparing to move into the implementation phase

Let’s deliver together.

However bold the idea or complex the problem, we work with you
to deliver results in weeks, not years.