Understanding the role of design operations on your team

4 min read
Dave Malouf
  •  Feb 28, 2018
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I recently facilitated a workshop in NYC covering the topic of design operations. The following post was inspired by that experience.

Want to attend a similar workshop in the future? Check out our upcoming cities and topics.

Let’s say your organization has committed to the best user-centered design processes. You’ve worked with your top-notch team to create a toolkit of methods that make processes sing. But even with all this being true, your designs still fall flat (or don’t provide as much value as you had hoped). This is where Design Operations, commonly referred to as DesignOps, comes into play.

“DesignOps are the grease, rails, and engine that make design’s processes, methods, and craft as valuable as possible.”

Understanding DesignOps

To understand the crux of DesignOps, imagine a designer and their work in the center of a graph. At his or her purest, the designer’s role is their craft. Then, processes and methods frame those, creating form and organization.

These first operational elements support the designer directly. From the moment the designer is engaged in a hiring process, onboarding system, and day-to-day environment, this initial layer of processes becomes a primary responsibility of the operations organization.

A shot from our recent DesignBetter workshop.

Why? Because circling a specialist’s crafts with firm methods turns the action of designing into an operation. The top 2 goals of DesignOps are setting up the team for success and increasing the value of your organization’s investment in design.

“The top goals of DesignOps are setting up the team for success and increasing the value of your investment in design.”

3 core components that establish operations

1) Design operations and tools

A designer’s toolkit is a crucial aspect of their support system.

Tools—everything from task management to actual design software—have become quite complex and interconnected. Because of this, and the way design teams tend to customize end-to-end workflows to their needs, technical issues previously in the IT realm are now within design team territory.  

This is why a workable, scalable toolkit makes up one of those layers that wraps the designer in the center of our graph. To scale your team in a way that allows designers to worry less about their environment, you’ll have to look a bit beyond the traditional org chart of a design team. People operations and other means of support are essential to making the overall workflow scalable. Therefore, toolsets in a DesignOps arena will also include things like knowledge management, version control, and project management.

2) Design operations and workflows

The tools you choose, how you decide to manage their procurement, deployment, security, and use, will invariably lead to the other side of the DesignOps coin: workflow.

Workflows among your designers, cross-functional teams, and assets that are a mix of code/text/vector and raster, all need to be managed. They need to be shared, integrated and delivered.

To scale these, you’ll inevitably need to consider design systems. Building a design system brings in a host of new operational concerns because it’s a product in and of itself that also needs full operational support. But the benefits can outweigh the risks:

  • They help scale your design team throughout the enterprise
  • They help maintain consistency throughout a complex application suite
  • They increase efficiencies in both design and development

While supporting the designer with these operations, we also start to support communities within the organization. When the operations that initially only impacted a designer start to affect other teams, our initial image of a designer gets another layer.

Discussing collaboration, for example, leads to cultural considerations within the organization about making decisions, governance (or not), allowing for autonomy (or not), and empowering learning.

To make your workflow more cross-functional, start by thinking outside the “craft” bubble. Tanner Christensen, a product designer at Facebook, recommends that designers mingle with content strategists, engineers, researchers, and product manager to talk about processes instead of projects. “As a designer, the more you understand about your team’s engineering process and toolset—and vice versa—the easier collaboration will be.”

3) Design operations and insights

So far we’ve concentrated on the designer, but the designer needs insights too. These come from research. Some orgs are small enough to allow designers to do their own research and validation, but as larger-sized organizations scale, research operations need to develop for the entire product organization.

From recruiting, to remote software tools, to synthesis tooling, and finally insight management, research operations become a central piece of the total DesignOps system.

Adding this thinking to your design organization is not easy. It will require influencing management to gain resources over time by demonstrating achieved goals. New teams are hired to help with these operations, and new people mean there are new roles to consider, and designers in the organization will also need to adapt to new additions. It’s an ever-evolving process.

“Everyone working on the same thing needs to be operating in the same shared reality. The people making decisions about the product need to be the best informed. It doesn’t matter how good the knowledge is, if it’s only in one person’s head,” says co-founder of Mule Design Erika Hall.

Prioritizing DesignOps will radically improve the value of your total design team’s output. Be sure to measure as you go, adjust as you learn, and be as inclusive as possible when increasing the scale and distribution of your operations.

“Prioritizing DesignOps will radically improve the value of your total design team’s output.”

Your designers are amazing. Give them the equipment, tools, culture, processes, and systems so that they can make amazing things happen.

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