DesignOps: Get everything and more out of your design team

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Nowadays there's more technology, more digital services, more channels and touchpoints being added to the customer journey; think apps, wearables, voice assistants, amongst others. This is what many organisations are dealing with today. Therefore the technology not only has to work well, but it’s of great importance that the products in question meet the highest expectations, work seamlessly and, of course, have a beautiful interface. In addition to that, a sizable design department is also required. This raises the questions: How do you integrate such a design team into your organisation? How do you manage to add value and scale up the team? 

For several years now large design organisations, such as AirBnb and Facebook, have referred to the management and organisation of such Design teams as Design Operations, or DesignOps (sometimes DesOps for short). DesignOps here serves as a valuable tool to address common operational challenges across many areas of the organisation. In this way, the designers remain free to focus on their specific tasks in their areas of expertise, leading to an increase in the quality of the digital products.

What is DesignOps? Where do you start? And what does it yield? 

What is DesignOps? 

Design Operations is a collective name for everything that has to do with coordinating and managing design within an organisation. DesignOps is committed to challenges related to:

  • Optimising the added value of design for the entire organisation
  • Increasing the quality of the delivered design
  • Growing and developing the designers and the team as a whole
  • Attracting designers with the right skills
  • Developing efficient working methods
"We’ve created DesignOps, to ease collaboration and amplify effectiveness, not only across product disciplines, but also between the increasingly complex world of Product Design."Adrian Cleave, Airbnb

Program, function or role?

The term DesignOps was introduced a few years ago in the US. Each organisation gives its own interpretation to the term, for example; DesignOps can be a program in the design department, where the team thinks structurally about improvements in the discipline. On the other hand, DesignOps can be a role, or even a function: A designated person who spends a lot of their time strengthening and supporting the design department. Often this person stands next to a creative leader who provides substantive direction. For this reason, some organisations also call DesignOps ‘Design Management’. 

Designers who work within a team have most likely already seen DesignOps in action. The team members would have discussed the tools with which they work, their file management strategies and how they can efficiently reuse components. 

DesignOps begins when a designer focuses on these organisational elements rather than on the design itself, often stemming from a point of frustration with the current workflow, and a desire to achieve a higher quality of work in a more efficient manner. So, DesignOps is a new term to define something we have been practicing for a long time. 

The demand for digital design teams is growing fast due to recognition of the increasing value placed in good design. Efficient organisation of that design is therefore crucial and deserving of its own label. 

Examples DesignOps projects

DesignOps covers many topics. It answers questions such as: What is the value of design in our organisation? How do we achieve that value? Who do we need in order to achieve that value? To make this more concrete, below are a few different examples of DesignOps projects:

  • A plan for expanding the design department in the coming years;
  • Clearly defined roles including associated skills and responsibilities;
  • A Design System for all digital expressions;'
  • An agreement about which software the designers use for which applications;
  • A tool to schedule designers for various activities
  • Requesting a budget for the growth of the team;
  • Coordinating efforts between the different designers in the organisation;
  • A method that describes how designers and developers work together;
  • An onboarding process for new team members.

What does it yield?

DesignOps is an investment which immediately makes sense to designers. They understand why their discipline is important to the organisation, and that it increases in value when the design team is better organised. However, a proposal for such an investment will often be met with resistance within the organisation. That's why it's important to be able to succinctly argue why investments should be made in DesignOps, taking into account  the priorities of your organisation. To list a few examples, see the following business goals and their corresponding DesignOps benefits: 

  • Higher quality products and services: Well designed products increase customer satisfaction, conversion and turnover.
  • Higher efficiency through standardisation of design: Product developers don't have to keep reinventing the wheel. By defining reusable components and setting clear guidelines in a design system, designers and also software developers can save a lot of time..
  • Satisfaction of the design team: Designers can focus on the quality of the designs and achieve more impact through thoughtful interaction with the end users of the products. Designers are most satisfied when their team grows, improves, and produces measurable results.

When do you start with DesignOps? 

A team of designers would  already discuss the organisation surrounding design, so it’s not always necessary to create a DesignOps function for this. Sometimes it's also sufficient to simply make a prioritised list of improvements for the design discipline, as long as a team member can regularly spend a bit of time on it.

The need for a full-time DesignOps role is often felt when the design team reaches ten or more members, especially if they are spread over different locations or product teams. For example, operational tasks that are placed with the designers in these teams can become too much of a burden, resulting in the designers being unable to optimally perform their core tasks. They can no longer efficiently manage duties such as organising software licenses, recruitment and budgeting. The following signals indicate that it is time to take DesignOps to the next step: 

  • Designers make little impact: There is a design team, but the team is mainly involved in production. They respond to the questions from the business. Design has no strategic voice in decisions around product developments, innovations or roadmaps.
  • Designer specialisation: As a design team grows, designers will begin to specialise their skills. Where designers were previously involved as all-rounders on a project, they will now deliver higher quality to a specific area. For example, a designer might focus more on research, conversion, data, animation, illustration or brand identity. In this case they will have to work together in teams with various specialisations and this requires good organisation.
  • Scaling problems: If several designers work together, more coordination is inevitable. Gaps in communication can result in inefficiency or inconsistent products.
  • Overworked Designers: Once an organisation has recognised the value of design, the design department can easily be overloaded with requests. Because designers tend to pick up a lot and have a high standard of work, this can quickly lead to overworked employees. The design team then needs to focus to maintain quality and normalise their workload. 

Where do you start?

There are several ways to apply DesignOps within your organisation. It very much depends on the current situation and the maturity of the design department. In order to take tactical and strategic steps, the design team must first schedule time for it next to the project hours. A clear DesignOps time slot helps convey its importance to the rest of the organisation. Once this is defined, you can begin. 

Some ways to start:

  • In the best situation, the organisation already recognises the importance of design, and DesignOps has become a crucial part of the design department. As a result, there is then room to appoint or hire an experienced leader. This leader should be someone who makes a plan, arranges budgets, starts putting together a team, and so on.
  • If the organisation is not yet on board, you can also start from the bottom up. First the design team has to make time for their DesignOps program. Then the team members have to think about how best to communicate their added value and commitment within the organisation, and then they can focus on scaling up their work.
  • Starting with metrics and analysis is also a good way to prove your worth. In this case, the team maps the current situation of DesignOps. Using these findings will show where the greatest gains can be made, and help to form the basis of a plan for a DesignOps program. Can the team do it themselves or is reinforcement needed?

Do you want to know more about DesignOps?

Talk to like-minded people about DesignOps at one of our events or roundtable discussions over breakfast (now organised in an online environment).

Or reach out for a chat with Hike One's digital strategist, Martijn Pillich.

Want to join the Beyond Design roundtable?

Learn more here